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Spike Lee: Those Six ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Oscar Nods Are About ‘Timing’

Spike Lee knows timing is everything, and believes the newly diversified Academy made a big difference in Oscar nominations.

Spike Lee, Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of "BlacKkKlansman"

Spike Lee, Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of “BlacKkKlansman”

David Lee/Focus Features

Spike Lee popped up early Oscar nominations morning, cuddling on the bed with his wife, two kids, and his dog, to check out the tally for team “BlacKkKlansman.” They cheered for editor Barry Alexander Brown and composer Terence Blanchard, valued Lee collaborators since the beginning. He called to congratulate costume designer Ruth E. Carter for her “Black Panther” nod; her previous nominations include “Malcolm X.”

“I’m pulling for her,” he told me on the phone later. He also called Blanchard, and Brown, who was at the dentist. Lee was appalled: “Barry, after 30 fucking years, today you get an Oscar nomination and you’re in the dentist’s chair? What the fuck is that? It’s horrible timing!”

Lee knows his good fortune is all about timing. (He’s the sixth black filmmaker nominated as Best Director; if he wins, he’ll be the first.) It’s been a long time since the Honorary Oscar winner was nominated for Original Screenplay for “Do the Right Thing.” But while the movie won no Oscars back in 1990, “it has not hurt the stature of ‘Do the Right Thing’ in history,” he said. Would “BlacKkKlansman” hit people the same way if President Obama was in office? “This was the right time for this film,” Lee said. “I do think that many years from now, when historians go to a piece of art that reflected what’s going on now, they’re going to look at this film as on the right side of history.”

"Blackkklansman"

“Blackkklansman”

Focus

He thinks Academy voters felt the resonance between the true 1979 story of Colorado detective Ron Stallworth and today. “This movie speaks directly to the crazy world we’re living in,” Lee said. “We were watching the news about 800,000 Americans struggling to get by, and this film speaks directly to what is happening in this country, because this guy can’t get his money for a wall so bogus that he shut the motherfuckers down.”

Lee fought to keep the real-life video from the Charlottesville riots for the film’s coda, “where the president of the United States, which is supposed to be the cradle of democracy, said ‘no’ to denouncing hate. His comments did not denounce hate, American home-grown terrorism, the Neo-Nazis, the alt-right, or the Ku Klux Klan. This president said Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers, and murderers, and that among the freedom seekers in the caravan, nestled amongst them are Middle-Easterners — a code-word for terrorists, Isis — among these people walking hundreds of miles to come to this country looking for a better way of life. This film speaks truth to power.”

"BlacKkKlansman"

“BlacKkKlansman”

Focus Features

The filmmaker also sent “special thanks and a shoutout and a big hug” to former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who steered the Board of Governors to open up and diversify the membership ranks. “All the films of color in the last year might not be getting the love without the diversity of the voting members being changed,” said Lee. “People didn’t automatically say, ‘All right.’ It took some work. The Academy is better for it. An organization like this should reflect the diversity of this country.”

Lee is happy to see more movies like Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” in the Oscar race. “Hollywood has really ramped it up,” he said. “They are making more diverse films. But in order to make sure this is something that is steady and not a trend is for us to see diversity among the gatekeepers, the rarified individuals that decide what we’re making and not making. That’s the only way to ensure against more cyclical droughts, that’s the new frontier. We’ve got a lot of stuff now, but what films are coming out next year? I’m not going to have a film. Who’s going to be there next in the marketplace? The only way to ensure this does not become a trend is that it should be commonplace.”

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