Spike Lee Is Still Speaking Truth to Power

Honorary Oscar recipient chooses his battles, but keeps up the good fight

Spike Lee Honorary Oscar
Parrish Lewis/Amazon Studios

There she is. Cheryl Boone Isaacs.”

Spike Lee is wandering through a conference room at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Beverly Hills headquarters, admiring a set of framed photographs of the Academy’s presidents. Isaacs, the current prexy, at the top left corner, is the only African-American face to be found among the 35 photos.

When Lee was announced as an Honorary Oscar recipient, it was noteworthy for a few reasons. The first: Over the past quarter-century, Lee has been both participant and subject of some of the most heated debates over the Academy’s biases. The failure of the Academy to nominate his 1989 masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” for best picture or director — during the same year that “Driving Miss Daisy” took the top prize — seemed an almost too-perfect illustration of the organization’s blind spots.

But thanks to people like Isaacs, Lee is convinced a change is afoot.

“I told Rahm Emanuel in that meeting, you’re gonna be on the wrong side of history on this film.”
Spike Lee

“What’s changed (since then) is Cheryl Boone Isaacs,” Lee says. “She came in with a mission, a plan to diversify the Academy and move it into the 21st century. And I don’t think it’s a secret that she told the Academy this is the direction she wanted to take it in.”

The second curious element of Lee’s honor: his age. At 58, he is one of the youngest to receive an Honorary Oscar, and he is far from planning his retirement. His new feature, “Chiraq,” is set to become Amazon’s first theatrical release later this fall. He’s presently in post with a documentary on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” and just last September saw the release of “NBA 2K16,” the first video game to feature the familiar title card, “A Spike Lee Joint.”

In contrast to his rabble-rousing reputation, Lee is amiable and low-key in conversation, with the aura of the tenured college professor he now is. Lee evinces a good deal of practicality when asked of his embrace of newer production platforms like Amazon and Kickstarter (“Have camera, will travel. You have to be flexible”) and digital photography (“I’d love to shoot on film again, but the cost is so prohibitive now. I’ve learned to pick my battles”).

He sings the praises of his students at NYU, and singles out actor Nate Parker’s upcoming directorial debut, “Birth of a Nation,” as a project to track: “Amazing film, and it’s gonna make noise…noise!” And he takes an appreciative yet melancholy view of the fact that some of his best films only found an audience in posterity. “Sometimes it takes people a while,” he says. “People have told me ‘25th Hour’ is their favorite film. I just want to say, man, I wish you went to the movie theater.”

There is one topic that raises Lee’s ire, however. Shot this summer on Chicago’s South Side, “Chiraq” is an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” set in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The film looks to shine a light on the area’s explosion of violence in recent years. (Lee says that during the month and a half they were filming on the South Side, 65 people were murdered in the area.) Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, however, has not been a supporter of the production.

“I had a meeting at City Hall with the mayor, I was there with my man Michael Pfleger (the Chicago priest and anti-violence activist), and man, Rahm told me he did not like the title of the film. He said the title ‘Chiraq,’” a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, “would hurt tourism and economic development.”

Lee takes a long pause and laughs to himself. “There’s no tourism in the South Side of Chicago,” he continues. “There’s also no economic development being done on the South Side of Chicago.

“While we were shooting, the Grateful Dead did their last concert in Chicago, and you also had Lollapalooza. So you had all these huge events, hotels full, streets full of energy, restaurants and bars filled up…but that’s all downtown. There’s no tour bus going through Englewood or the Wild Wild 100s or Terror Town. Unless they start making the tour busses bulletproof. So what tourism are you talking about?”

It’s enough to bring to Lee’s mind the panic-stoking early reviews of “Do the Right Thing,” which seemed to suggest the film would incite viewers to riot in the streets.

“Joe Klein, David Denby, Jack Kroll…” Lee remembers. “They said things like blood is gonna be on my hands, blacks are gonna riot all over the U.S., ‘Hope to God this film doesn’t open in your neighborhood.’ I told Rahm Emanuel in that meeting, just like (they) said about ‘Do the Right Thing,’ You’re gonna be on the wrong side of history on this film too, Rahm. You’re gonna be on the wrong side.”