Spike Lee Reflects on First Directing Oscar Nom: "I've Always Been the Underdog"

Spike Lee arrives at the The 24th Annual Critics' Choice Awards - Getty-H 2019
Steve Granitz/WireImage

The 'BlacKkKlansman' helmer — who nabbed three nominations for his based-on-a-true story dramedy, including best picture (another first) — also reveals his conversation with snubbed star John David Washington.

It's been 30 years since Spike Lee received his first Oscar nomination, for the Do the Right Thing screenplay, and in all the years since, the prolific filmmaker has earned only one other nom (for the 1997 doc 4 Little Girls).

Lee, 61, spoke with THR on Oscar morning about what it feels like to nab three nominations for his based-on-a-true-story dramedy BlacKkKlansman, including his firsts for best directing and best picture.

How did it feel to learn of your nominations? Do you traditionally get up to watch them?

It's not something I've done in a long time, so you could really say it was new because I don't remember what happened in '89. This time, I was with my wife, Tonya, my daughter Satchel, my son Jackson and our dog Ginger. We watched ABC Channel 7, and we were all in the bed together — we were jumping up and down.

Have you talked to the cast and crew?

We're going to have a little shindig here tonight in Brooklyn, the cast and crew. We're going to celebrate, maybe shake a leg. I spoke to Barry Brown, the editor. Barry can't speak today because he has a dentist appointment. I said, "Barry, you waited 30 years and now today you have to go to the dentist?" I spoke to Terence Blanchard, my longtime composer, who's in New Orleans. He was happy. I spoke to Adam Driver, who's shooting on the Star Wars set in London, where they stopped production and assembled the cast and crew to congratulate him. I also called my brother, [snubbed star] John David Washington and said, "Look. You're going to be back here. Don't you worry about it." Today is filled with love, but at the same time, watching the news this morning, I just can't help but think about the 800,000 Americans who are now living in a desperate time [due to the government shutdown]. This film deals directly with that and all the other crazy shit that's happened in this country since Agent Orange [Donald Trump] got into the White House. I travel a lot, and when I go to the airport, I make it a point to thank every TSA person. Because they have a very important job and are not getting paid, and if they decide to strike, the whole motherfucker's shutting down. But again, this film is connected to all this stuff.

Many are pointing out how overdue this recognition was.

I'm just happy that people are happy that we got the recognition for this film. You can't go back and revoke what happened in the past, so this is just like that football game where the Saints got robbed [against the Rams]. They're not going back to overturn that play. It hurts, but you have to move forward. And right now, we're in the game. People ask me, "What do you think your chances are?" I like where we are. We're the dark horse in this race, pun intended.(Laughs.) We're underdogs, and I like that position. I've always been the underdog.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.