Spike Lee on Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar: ‘Ref Made a Bad Call’

Spike Lee is unimpressed at Green Book winning Oscars' top prize, comparing it to losing to Driving Miss Daisy 30 years ago.

Spike Lee Oscars Green Book
Photo: Getty

After the last night’s Oscars, it’s fair to say that the Academy appears divided among itself. Despite having the most diverse pool of Oscars winners in history, including Regina King with a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk, Ruth E. Carter for Best Costumes for Black Panther, and especially Spike Lee finally winning a competitive Oscar, here for his phenomenal work on BlacKkKlansman, the Academy nevertheless bestowed its top prize on a film plagued with credible criticisms of being a white savior movie. Green Book might be a feel-good crowd-pleaser, but the crowd it is pleasing is skewed by the mere fact the protagonist is not Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) but his white driver played by Viggo Mortensen.

This ironic divergence of tastes and impulses was crystallized when Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson—just happening to be there to promote Captain Marvel—read out the awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. One went to a very old-fashioned view of race relations (practically exclaiming, “Can’t we all just get along?”) and the other went, finally, to Spike Lee. Accepting his Screenplay Oscar nearly 30 years after he lost the same prize for Do the Right Thing, Lee had an exuberant moment as he jumped into Jackson’s arms, reuniting with a friend who he first worked with on Do the Right Thing, and then contextualized his win in the history of slavery and racism in America.

… He then went on to see Green Book take home Best Picture later in the night. It’s been reported by those in the room that Lee got out of his seat in frustration after Green Book’s Best Picture win was announced and almost left the auditorium before having an apparently intimate conversation with BlacKkKlansman producer Jordan Peele. He still kept his back to his seat, but not before having his back pointed to Green Book’s acceptance speech.

His feelings, however, soon became public when he did a post-Oscars presser. Thanks to The Hollywood Reporter video below, viewers can see Lee enter the room elated, yet also visibly frustrated, pacing the stage with a glass of champagne in his hand and chagrin on his face. Opening a conversation with the press by saying, “This is my sixth glass and you know why.” He soon spelled it out when asked if his BlacKkKlansman win atones for losing Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing—a year where his seminal classic on race relations went ignored from Best Picture and Best Director nominations while the antiquated Driving Miss Daisy took home the top prize of the night.

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“I’m snake-bit,” Lee said. “I mean, every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose. But they changed the seating arrangement!” After a laugh, however, he did add, “But in ’89 I didn’t get nominated, for this one we did,” referring to Best Picture.

Lee was then directly asked about his reaction to Green Book winning Best Picture, and his leaving his seat. After joking he needed another sip of his champagne, he eventually answered, “I thought it was courtside at the [Madison Square] Garden. The ref made a bad call.”

Some will undoubtedly take issue with Lee’s frankness on the subject, but he did make his comments in mostly good humor and undeniable candor. It gets to the crux of this year’s Oscars having a split personality. Literally in the span of a few moments, they can honor BlacKkKlansman, a film about the pervasiveness of white supremacy that draws a line between the 1970s KKK and Charlottesville in 2017, and Green Book, a film that treats racism as solely a period piece issue that can be solved by a white guy inviting a black man to dinner. One film acknowledges the complexity and unending messiness of a problem that’s deeply seated in our culture, and the other codifies it into an admittedly affable buddy movie. But is affable a term that should describe the Best Picture of the Year, especially in a year where (unlike Green Book) black filmmakers are dealing with this subject in a far more nuanced way?

Beyond BlacKkKlansman, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Steve McQueen’s Widows, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You all offered nuanced and challenging perspectives on the black American experience, including that of the black woman’s experience in the first two films’ cases, and none of them were nominated for Best Picture. Two of them were not nominated for anything. Meanwhile, other subversive and innovative films like The Favourite could pull a major upset in the Best Leading Actress category, seeing a sincerely overjoyed Olivia Colman take home a well-deserved Oscar, but at the same time safe commercial fare like Bohemian Rhapsody, that also soft-pedals the darker moments and more taboo aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life, can be one of the night’s big winners taking home four Oscars, including for Best Leading Actor, Rami Malek.

It does feel like one step forward (or two if you count Colman) and then three steps back. Which might be why for all of the Academy’s attempts to become more diverse and inclusive, we still can end up in the same place as 30 years ago when Driving Miss Daisy won. Only, as Spike said, with slightly different seating arrangements.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.