Diversify or go bust, Spike Lee warns movie industry

Spike Lee

Spike Lee said Tuesday that diversity in movie making and at the Oscars was not only more fair but also crucial for business as US audiences grow less white.

Asked at the Berlin film festival about his decision not to attend this month’s Academy Awards due to the all-white acting nominees two years running, the African-American filmmaker said the issue went deeper than prizes.

“The Academy Awards is really not the problem. The problem is with the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers, these are the people at the executive levels, at the studios, and the networks and cable TV. They sit in a room every quarter and decide what we’re going to make and what we’re not going to make.”

Lee, 58, said most of those decision makers were “white men”.

“So if there’s no diversity there, that’s reflected in the movies that get made, the movies that get voted on (for the Oscar nominations),” he said.

“Not Spike Lee but the United States Census Bureau said by the year 2046, white Americans are going to be in a minority in this country so even if you don’t believe in diversity, I know you believe in the all-mighty dollar.”

Lee said if studios failed to take the interests of a broader audience into account, “they’re going to go out of business because there’s a large market there,” citing the recent box office success of “Straight Outta Compton”, a biopic about the rap group N.W.A. as an example.

The Berlin festival’s jury president Meryl Streep had made similar comments about Hollywood diversity Sunday, slamming studio boardrooms filled with “40- to 50-year-old white males”.

– Raising a ruckus –

The Brooklyn-born Lee, who won an Oscar last year honouring his lifetime achievements, wrote an open letter to the Academy in January decrying the “lily white” nominations.

Mega-star Will Smith — one of the black actors seen as having been passed over for a nomination this year — and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith followed Lee in announcing that they too would stay away from the ceremony on February 28.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences later announced “historic action” to double the number of women and minority members by 2020 and launch a global effort to “recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity”.

“If a ruckus had not been raised, I believe that the Academy would not have made those changes,” Lee said.

The Brooklyn-born filmmaker was presenting his latest movie “Chi-Raq” about a women in Chicago who launch a sex strike to stop rampant gun violence in their community.

One of the film’s stars, John Cusack, criticised the obsessive focus on awards season in the movie industry.

“It seems like it used to be where artists make a lot of films and every once in a while they come together and have an award,” he said.

“Now it feels like we make films for two months and give each other awards for 10 months. I don’t think grown people should take awards that seriously.”

Asked about the US presidential race, Lee and Cusack said they would back any Democrat if firebrand Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, although both said they supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

“Bernie Sanders is from Brooklyn, I gotta vote for him,” Lee said.

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