Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,147 words)
Some people missed Jack Nicholson at the Oscars this year. They were expecting to see the octogenarian — shades on — where he always is: front row, leaning back, just about sucking on a cigar. They expected the stars on stage to shout across the room at him and him to shout back, like the Dolby Theatre is his own personal living room. Because that’s how it is when you’ve been in the industry since you were teenager and you’ve been nominated for countless Oscars and you’ve won three — it’s age that bestows the privilege, but also work. Oh, and race. And gender too. Also sexuality. So, yes, with all those things squared away — whiteness, maleness, heteroness — in an industry that privileges all three, after several decades you acquire the kind of legendary status where you don’t stand on ceremony because everyone else is standing for you.
So where was Jack? I don’t know; I didn’t notice he was gone. How do you notice when Spike Lee’s in his spot? This guy who won a Student Academy Award back in the eighties, leaning back, side-eyeing everyone, shouting back and forth at everyone too. Just like Jack except, like, more. In his grape suit and his grape hat and his grape glasses, Lee peacocked the hell out of the red carpet with his fists up, Love and Hate forged across his fingers — were those rings or brass knuckles? Oh, wait, I remember, they’re from Do the Right Thing. They’re both. And then there’s those gold Air Jordans commissioned by the man himself for the filmmaker himself because, like Jack, he is also one of those basketball guys who sits in the front row of every game. Of course, the look — designer Ozwald Boateng, who worked on Black Panther, did the suit — is a lot more of a statement than Jack would ever make. But, then, Spike Lee is a lot more of a statement.
This is the new old Hollywood. Where Jack Nicholson was well-ensconced, now the seats of note are no longer occupied solely by the old white men who once claimed all the accolades for building the industry. Instead you have the people who have worked just as hard for just as long who are no longer being overlooked — more than that, they are being recognized as essential to the future. While Meryl Streep briefly appeared to take Nicholson’s spot, the aggressively decorated actress served as a bridge to the rarer, and therefore more powerful, recognition of the legacy of black artists — Spike Lee, Oprah, Cicely Tyson — not only for their own achievements coming up within a much less diverse industry, but for how they, like so many older people of color in so many other industries, have set the stage for the younger (second?) generation facing a less hostile world, built on the work of their predecessors.
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It started with Oprah, because what doesn’t? Back in 1995, David Letterman launched the Oscars by walking across the stage to where the queen of daytime was sitting, and saying, “Oprah?” From the audience, in her regal chocolate gown, sprinkled with diamonds, even her wave regal, she mouthed, “Hi,” because that’s all you have to really say when you’re Oprah. She proceeded to laugh good-naturedly as he introduced her to Uma, but no one wants to remember that terrible punchline, and anyway, the point was Oprah. Only 10 years after launching her syndicated talk show — in a field saturated with white men — Oprah was a big enough name to open Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. But she was only 41 then, so: big enough, but not old enough to be the kind of legacy that just sits and watches as everyone orbits around her. That came later.
In the interim, Oprah was named the most influential woman in the world multiple times over. She became so pervasive in the culture — her show, her magazine, her cable network — that she became less of a person and more of an emotion. Her fame transcended race and gender and sexuality, even body. So when she was seated at an awards ceremony, even if she was there for no real reason, the feeling was: obviously, this entire edifice would crumble if Oprah weren’t here. And when she wasn’t there, she still was. Because Oprah is everywhere. So when E! News joked in 2017 that she was “probably the most-thanked person in Emmy history” it seemed fitting. As John Oliver said when he accepted the award for writing in a variety series, “I’d like to thank Oprah, because she is sitting right there and it seems inappropriate not to.”
Oprah herself thanked Sidney Poitier last year when she became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes. “I remember his tie was white and of course, his skin was black. And I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that,” she said. “There are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given the same award.” Though she has been fully embraced by a white audience and industry, culminating in Globes host Seth Meyers joking of a possible Oprah presidential run in 2020 (it was less of a joke to the media, which covered the story incessantly) it is easy to overlook how she affected black artists. But two fellow giants of film and television — Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes — offered a reminder. Perry admitted that he started writing when Oprah said that it was a cathartic act on her talk show. And when Shonda Rhimes was honored at the Television Academy Hall of Fame ceremony in late 2017, her speech on Oprah mirrored Oprah’s on Poitier: “She was a black woman on television, and then she was a black woman taking over the world through television.”
With more young artists of color getting powerful faster, more older artists of color, many without Oprah’s platform (no one has that platform, to be honest), are lifted up along with them. As a guest editor for TIME’s second annual “Optimists” issue, filmmaker Ava Duvernay chose Cicely Tyson, who received an honorary Oscar in November, to be the cover star. “.@ava I have been asked multiple times what it feels like to be on the cover of @TIME?” the 94-year-old actress tweeted. “My humblest answer is, had u not been guest editor, I would probably never know.” Like dominoes, the inspiration tips down from one generation to another to another. Sidney Poitier inspires Oprah, Oprah inspires Shonda Rhimes, Shonda Rhimes inspires Issa Rae. And the recognition tips back up again.
Then there is the direct support provided by one generation to the next. In the interview accompanying his Rolling Stone cover last year, Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman revealed that Phylicia Rashad was once his acting teacher, but also helped him a whole lot more than that; she would feed him and drive him places and even got her friend Denzel to pay for him to attend a prestigious program in Oxford. And the support extends across ethnicities. Upon winning a SAG Award this year for her role in Killing Eve, Sandra Oh acknowledged three black actors for their encouragement throughout her career. “I want to thank Alfre Woodard. In 1997 — she’s never going to remember this — in 1997, she whispered in my ear, ‘I’m so proud of you out there. We fight the same fight,’” she said. “Jamie Foxx, in 2006, pulled me aside and he said, ‘Keep going,’ and in 2017, Lena Waithe, she just embraced me and said, ‘You already won. It’s in the work.’ So thank you to my fellow actors.” The fight is everyone’s, of course, and the solidarity across race, gender, sexuality, age — everything — is the real win.
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“Spike Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” That’s how it sounds when one of your oldest friends announces that you’ve just won your first Oscar. Samuel L. Jackson was the one to read out the BlackkKlansman filmmaker’s name as the winner of best adapted screenplay. And Lee responded by jumping into his arms, wrapping his legs around Jackson so you couldn’t tell who was hugging whom. It was the celebration of a long-awaited formal welcome into the Hollywood family, the culmination of an almost 40-year career in which Lee had been trying to carve out a space as a commercial filmmaker. He always had the critical support (BAFTA, Palme d’Or, Cesar, Emmy, Peabody nods and wins) and the exposure (Malcolm X, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Inside Man) but the largely white establishment, symbolized by the Academy, had remained elusive until now.
Despite going from film school straight into the festival circuit, despite the popularity of his films — She’s Gotta Have It made about 70 times its budget — Lee had to hustle for himself because the industry wasn’t doing it for him. On the advent of his third film, Do the Right Thing, The New Yorker stated of Lee, “the most prominent black director in the American movie industry, he probably feels as if he were sprinting downcourt with no one to pass to and about five hundred towering white guys between him and the basket.” But some white gals were offering assists. Ahead of the Oscars, Kim Basinger’s off-script moment at the 1990 ceremony while presenting best-picture nominee Dead Poets Society went viral. In the clip she called out the Academy for “missing” Do the Right Thing, which she said told “the biggest truth of all.” Whether or not it was intentional, Barbra Streisand’s presentation of BlackKklansman as one of the best picture nominees this year echoed Basinger’s words. “It was so real, so funny and yet so horrifying because it was based on the truth,” Streisand said of the film. “And truth is especially precious these days.”
Even though BlackKklansman lost the Best Picture award to Green Book — “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose,” Lee quipped (Driving Miss Daisy won in 1990, while Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated) — its director’s influence ricocheted across the ceremony. When Ruth E. Carter became the first black woman to win best costume design for Black Panther, she thanked Lee for her “start,” referring to her first gig on his second film, School Daze, in 1988. “I hope this makes you proud,” she said. The connection not only points to the limited opportunities for filmmakers of color — if Spike Lee didn’t hire you, likely no one did — but to Lee’s own ethos, to portray black society in all its complexity from within it. ‘‘A lot of black artists start off with a black base, and once they get big, they get co-opted and cut all ties to the black community,’’ he told The New York Times in 1986. He did not plan to do the same, nor has he. And a growing number of current artists of color — from Shonda Rhimes to Jordan Peele to Lena Waithe — are taking his cue and hiring as diversely. “Here’s the thing: Without April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite and the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences … I wouldn’t be here tonight,” Lee said after his Oscar win. “It’s more diverse … That would not have happened without #OscarsSoWhite and Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Facts.”
Though the most popular films have not improved their representation over the past decade, television is seeing increased diversity and these Oscars were the most inclusive in recent memory. Three out of the four acting trophies went to people of color, while two black women — Black Panther’s Carter for costume and Hannah Beachler for production design — made history in their categories. As Lee alluded to, this is only possible through changing optics, the slow trickle of diversity into the establishment that builds, generation upon generation, toward a welcome deluge. The result is a new and improved Hollywood that reflects reality over antediluvian ideals, in a world that is moving in the same direction — from politics, to science, to tech, to everything. And while it’s rare to catch the actual changing of the guard, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn managed to freeze a symbolic moment after the Oscars in which Spike Lee, trophy in hand, asked Black Panther director Ryan Coogler how old he was — 32 to his 61 — before saying, “Man! I’m passing it to you.” It was Lee acknowledging his own legacy in the direct presence of its heir. As he had said during his speech earlier in the night: “We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.