Spike Lee on 'Green Book's' Controversial Oscars Best Picture Win: "Ref Made a Bad Call"

The 'BlacKkKlansman' director turned away from the stage after the film was given the night's top honor.

When Green Book received the award for best picture at Sunday night's 2019 Oscars, director Spike Lee — whose film BlacKkKlansman was also nominated in the same category — was visibly upset. He later explained why backstage at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre.

When the best picture winner was announced, Lee turned away from the stage as the Green Book team went up to accept the award. Reports later said he left the room not long after. 

In the press room, Lee recalled the time that Do the Right Thing didn’t get a best picture nomination in 1989, the year that Driving Miss Daisy won. "This is my sixth glass and you know why," he told reporters, while holding a glass of champagne. "I'm snake-bit. Every time someone is driving somebody I lose. But in '89 I didn’t get nominated, so." 

When he heard Green Book's name called for best picture, Lee said, "I thought I was courtside at the Garden and the ref made a bad call."

Still, Lee — who won his first-ever competitive Oscar for best adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth's 2014 novel of the same name — gave props to the Academy's new leadership, which he believes is responsible for his hard-earned victory. Despite decades of groundbreaking work, Lee had never been nominated for a directing Oscar until this year (he was nominated in 1990 for his Do the Right Thing screenplay and in '98 as a producer of documentary feature 4 Little Girls; he also won an honorary Oscar in 2015). 

"Without April Reign and the former president of the Academy I wouldn't be here tonight. They opened up the Academy. Three black women won Oscars," he said, calling out this year's remarkably inclusive winners. "Like my brother Jay-Z says: Facts." 

Continued Lee: "Samuel L. Jackson and I went to the same college. I have known Sam from way, way back. To have him open up the envelope and say my name it was a great thing. Did I jump up on him? That was a genuine reaction."

In his acceptance, Lee gave a powerful speech that touched on racism in America, its roots in slavery and urged people to vote in the 2020 presidential election. In the press room, Lee said that he had planned to say more if he had won best picture for BlacKkKlansman.

"I had two speeches. One with the list of people I was going to thank and the one that I gave. I said to myself, 'Self, your black ass may not be up here again.' So I apologize for the people I did not get the chance to thank," Lee said. "I am one of the blessed people in the world that gets to do a job I love."

Moments before Lee explained his feelings about Green Book's win, Associated Press reporter Andrew Dalton, who attended the awards show, tweeted, "Lee was visibly angry when 'Green Book' was announced as the winner of best picture at the Oscars, waving his arms in disgust and appearing to try to storm out of the Dolby Theatre before he was stopped at the doors. He returned to his seat when the speeches were over."

According to the Kansas City Star, BlacKkKlansman producer Jordan Peele also refused to clap after Green Book won best picture.

At the Governors Ball after the Oscars, Lee exited quickly right after he got his statuette engraved, though he did stop to take selfies with fans and appeared very calm and accommodating.

Still, the Associated Press grabbed Lee at the Vanity Fair Oscars party, where he struck a conciliatory tone.

"I'm not going to trash the film," Lee told the AP. "They won. I congratulated Peter [Farrelly]. I congratulated Mr. [Mahershala] Ali. I congratulated one of the screenwriters, and I said congratulations. I've been very gracious."

And the AP seemingly asked Green Book writer-producer Brian Hayes Currie about Lee's reaction to the film's win and reports that he tried to storm out, with Currie saying, "That's unfortunate if he did that, but we have all the respect in the world for the guy."

Green Book tells the true story of pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as they journey on a concert tour through the Deep South. The film has courted controversy throughout the awards circuit. 

Backlash ensued after several of Dr. Shirley's relatives expressed their disappointment in how parts of his life were portrayed on film. His great-niece Yvonne Shirley was vocal in her criticism, saying that the film's depiction of Dr. Shirley as estranged from his family and "disconnected from the black community" was false.

Some critics also lambasted Green Book for what they perceived as a "white savior" narrative. Additionally, writer and producer Nick Vallelonga faced backlash when a 2015 tweet resurfaced in which he endorsed Donald Trump's false claim that Muslims in Jersey City cheered when the World Trade Center towers came down on 9/11. (He later apologized for the tweet and slowed down on public appearances for the remainder of awards season.)

The film's director, Peter Farrelly, also came under fire for a resurfaced 1998 Newsweek article that described how he used to flash his genitals as a joke, something for which he also later apologized.


Feb. 25, 8:27 a.m. Updated with Spike Lee and Brian Hayes Currie's comments to the Associated Press.