Spike Lee’s Timely Diversity Comments Deserve Better Than an Honorary Oscars Ceremony No One Got to See

Last weekend, Spike Lee finally got an Oscar. Sure, it followed his losses for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing and Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls (to say nothing of the trophies he deserved and wasn’t even nominated for, for Malcolm X and 25th Hour and so many more); it was an Honorary Award, presented to the filmmaker in recognition of his full body of work. And while it doesn’t negate his previous slights, what the hell, it’s also the only Oscar they gave Hawks, Altman, or Lumet, so he’s in good company. The difference, however, is that we got to see those iconic filmmakers receive their only Academy Award — and that’s no longer the case, which is particularly galling considering the importance of what Lee chose to tell his movie-making peers.

Lee wasn’t the only important figure to finally nab an Academy Award Saturday night. The great Debbie Reynolds (though unable to attend due to illness) received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given to “an individual in the motion picture arts and sciences whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry,” for her decades of work promoting awareness and treatment of mental health issues. The Honorary Oscars, which recognize “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy,” were given not only to Lee but the brilliant Gena Rowlands, twice nominated for acting (in A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, both films directed by indie pioneer John Cassavetes) and one of the most influential performers of her time.

Before 2010, such honorary awards were part of the Oscar ceremony. But beginning with the 82nd Academy Awards in March of that year, the honorary awards (which also frequently include the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an occasional honor bestowed upon producer types) were handed out separately, at an untelevised Governors Awards ceremony several months earlier. The reasoning was obvious: in a ceremony as renowned for its length as for its content, surgically removing the special awards was an easy way to trim the show’s bloated running time (while presumably reducing the risk of losing younger viewers in the key demos who don’t care about old movies and the people who made them).

So, has it worked? Not so much! In fact, the 2009 ceremony (with honorary awards) ran seven minutes shorter than 2010’s (without them); every year since, the show has continued to clock in somewhere between 194 minutes and 223 minutes, which is pretty much the range of the ceremonies airing between 2001 and 2009. It’s not that taking out the special awards made the Oscars shorter; it just gave them more time for other bullshit, like asinine production numbers and endless clip reels. You can, it seems, empty the Oscar ceremony of as much seemingly disposable material as you’d like — it will just fill itself right back up with more garbage, like a recycling container at the Vanity Fair after-party.

And, meanwhile, what have we lost? Long before I knew they were, at best, an unreliable barometer of year-to-year quality, watching the Oscars was a yearly ritual for this teenage movie freak — and (particularly in those pre-TCM days) the honorary Oscars were an important part of my cinematic education, an introduction to important talents like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, and Sophia Loren, and the clips and testimonials presented during Hollywood’s big night often sent me scurrying to my video store and library to see and learn more. Access is easier and information flows more freely these days, but such acknowledgments of the people who made the movies what they are should still be important; they’re kind of what the night is, at least on some level, supposed to be about.

Spike Lee with his Oscar. Via Instagram (@officialspikelee)
Spike Lee with his Oscar. Via Instagram (@officialspikelee)

There is a counterargument to be made in favor of the separate ceremony, that it gives the honorees (and those honoring them) far more time than the traditionally rush-rush Oscar night, in which filmed tributes and acceptance speeches would be greatly compressed so as not to stop the show. And maybe that’s true; Lee’s acceptance speech reportedly ran 15 minutes, far more time than would’ve been afforded him in the Academy Awards ceremony proper. But something tells me that, given a smaller window, he’d have dispensed with the freewheeling bio and put across the important message of his speech:

I want to commend Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs because she is trying to do something that needs to be done. Not sure if you now this, but the US Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be the minority in this country. People in positions of hiring, you better get smart. Your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.

Everybody here probably voted for Obama! But in [Hollywood] offices, I see no black folks except for the man who’s the security guard who checks my name off the list as I got into the studio. So we can talk “Yabba yabba yabba,” but we need to have a serious conversation about diversity and get some flavor up in this! It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be the head of the studio or head of a network.

Who knows — maybe “you better get smart” will make it into the minute-and-a-half highlight reel from Saturday’s ceremony that’ll run during the big show in February. But I doubt it. In the meantime, the AMPAS is treating its lifetime achievement honorees like second cousins at the Thanksgiving kids’ table, shuttling off Rowlands’ and Reynolds’ achievements and Lee’s timely message to the entertainment blogs, rather than one of the largest TV audiences of the year. But it’s cool. I’m sure the Good Dinosaur-themed tap dance number will be worth it.