Spike Lee responds to #OscarsSoWhite backlash with brilliant open letter to Academy

Posted by
Joe Ellison

And the award for best open letter to the Academy goes to (drum roll)…Spike Lee.

In possibly the most predictable thing to happen during this year’s Oscar nominations (outside of Leo getting a nod for being molested by an angry bear), the list of those in the running was largely white. Scrap that - it was all white, with 20 nominated actors and not a minority face between them, sparking the #OscarsSoWhite backlash.

Joining the chorus of boos, Spike Lee has weighed in on the matter, penning an eloquent, thoughtful retort to the whitewashing of the film industry's biggest celebration.

Timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr Day, Lee, who was awarded an honorary Oscar last November, posted an Instagram photo of the Doctor and wrote to state he won’t be attending out of principle, saying he and his wife “cannot support it” - before launching into a frank and honest assault on the people who run that world.

“[I] mean no disrespect to my friends, host Chris Rock and producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs and the Academy. But, how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? And let's not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can't act?! WTF!!”

Refreshingly, Lee then turns the tables to ask why white actors and filmmakers aren’t being asked about the lack of roles and plaudits in the industry, even asking why a cinematic equivalent of the NFL's Rooney Rule can't be brought in to help bring about balance.

Whatever the impact this letter makes, let's hope it's enough for Hollywood to take a long hard look at itself.

#OscarsSoWhite… Again.

I would like to thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for awarding me an honorary Oscar this past November. I am most appreciative. However, my wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee and I will not be attending the Oscar ceremony this coming February. We cannot support it and mean no disrespect to my friends, host Chris Rock and producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs and the Academy. But how is it possible, for the 2nd consecutive year, all 20 under the Actor Category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act? WTF?

It’s no coincidence I’m writing this as we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday. Dr. King said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it’s right.

For too many years, when the Oscar nominations are revealed, my office phone rings off the hook with the media asking me my opinion about the lack of African-Americans and this year was no different. For once, (maybe) I would like the media to ask all the white nominees and the studio heads how they feel about another all white ballot. If someone has addressed this and I missed it, then I stand mistaken.

As I see it, the Academy Awards is not where the “real” battle is. It’s in the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and the TV and cable networks. This is where the gate keepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to “turnaround” or scrap heap. This is what’s important. The Gate Keepers. Those with “the green light” vote. As the great actor Leslie Odom Jr. sings and danced in the game changing Broadway musical Hamilton, “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” People, the truth is, we ain’t in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.

As I said in my honorary Oscar acceptance speech, it’s easier for an African-American to be President of the United States than be President of a Hollywood studio. Also, the United States Census Bureau released a report stating white Americans will be a minority in America by the year 2044. Don’t you think it’s a wise business decision to have your product and workforce reflect the diversity of the greatest country on this God’s Earth? I ask, what’s the hold up? And please … don’t go to the well and say there are no qualified minority candidates for these green light gate keeping positions.

It’s amazing how far sports and music have moved ahead of Hollywood and television, but maybe we can learn from them too. Your honor, I present Exhibit A: the National Football League’s Rooney Rule. It’s named after the late Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mr. Rooney was also Chairman of the League’s Diversity committee.

The Rooney Rule states NFL teams MUST interview minorities candidates for the positions of head coach and senior football executives before hires. Since being put in place before the 2006 season, African-American hires have increased. Facebook and Pinterest have their own version of the Rooney Rule to hire minorities. Why can’t Hollywood do the same? It’s worth the effort of it will be the same old hi-jinks. I do hope in my children’s lifetime things will change for the betterment of all Americans. A great diverse America.

Spike Lee

Da Republic Of Brooklyn, New York
January 18th, 2016


Share this article


Joe Ellison

Joe is a writer and editor. Specialising in film, food, sport, current affairs, travel writing and adept at pilfering David Brent quotes, Joe describes himself as ‘basically a chilled out entertainer’. Follow Joe on Twitter: @Chevychased 

Other people read

More from Films

More from Joe Ellison