Twenty-seven years ago, in his breakout film Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee had a character agitate for a boycott of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. The reason for proposed boycott: Sal's, positioned in the middle of a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood, didn't have any black faces on the walls to accompany the mugs of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and others.
Funny how life can imitate art. On Monday, Lee joined actress Jada Pinkett Smith in calling for a boycott of next month's Academy Awards. The reason: The Oscar nominees don't include any black faces in any major category. For the second straight year, there are 20 acting nominees, all of them white.
(Two footnotes: Lee's Do the Right Thing screenplay was nominated for an Oscar at the 1989 awards. And Pinkett Smith's husband Will, a two-time nominee, was seen as a potential best-actor candidate this year for his performance in Concussion.)
Lee and Pinkett Smith are hardly the only ones voicing concern that the Oscar nominees reflect neither the diversity of the film world nor the moviegoing audience. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement Monday promising a change is going to come.
"This is a difficult but important conversation, and it's time for big changes," said Isaacs, elected in 2013 as the academy's first black president. "The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond."
A few issues are in play here. One, as Isaacs says, is the makeup of the Academy voters, who are predominantly older and whiter than the bulk of moviegoers. The potential nominees who were passed up include Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of the rap group N.W.A.; Creed, the latest Rocky sequel starring Michael B. Jordan and directed by Ryan Coogler; and Idris Elba, magnetic as an African warlord in Beasts of No Nation. (Compton, like Do the Right Thing, was nominated for best original screenplay.)
Exceptions to the rule are few and far between. Fourteen years ago, both lead acting awards went to black performers: Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. Then two years ago, at the 2014 ceremony, a move toward diversity again seemed promising: 12 Years a Slave, directed by black filmmaker Steve McQueen, won best picture and Alfonso Cuarón won best director for Gravity.
But the more significant problem is much bigger than the Oscars, and it starts way before the nominees are announced. The lack of diversity springs from the executives who give the green light for movies to enter production, and it trickles down from there. There's no reason the burden of hope for a diverse Oscar roster should fall on the shoulders of a Creed or a Compton. That it does is a dilemma in itself.
When I talked to Lee in November, mostly about his latest film Chi-Raq, he had just received an honorary Oscar and used the occasion to lambaste Hollywood's diversity problem. In our interview, he drew an analogy to a song from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. The song, "The Room Where It Happens," plays off the exclusive environment in which political deals are struck ("We just assume that it happens/But no one else is in/The room where it happens").
"That song is very applicable to African-Americans, and where people of color stand within the Hollywood studio system and the broadcast and cable networks," Lee told me. "We're not in the room."
Chris Rock is scheduled to be in the room on Oscar night for his second go-around as host. Let's hope he doesn't join the boycott. He has already tabbed this year's Oscars as "The White BET Awards." When he hosted in 2005, he showed a skit wherein he asks the clientele at Magic Johnson Theatre in Los Angeles which Oscar-nominated movies they'd seen. Sideways? No. Million Dollar Baby? Nope. Finding Neverland? Are you kidding? It was classic Rock, a trenchant piece of social commentary with a comedic sting.
It was also a reminder that there are two Hollywoods, separate but equal, if you will. Will a boycott help call attention to this disparity? Probably. But nothing much will change until the room where it happens grows more inclusive.