“Everybody here probably voted for Obama,” he said at the conclusion of his 18-minute turn at the podium. “But in [Hollywood] offices, I see no black folks except for the man who’s the security guard who checks my name off the list as I got into the studio. So we can talk ‘Yabba yabba yabba,’ but we need to have a serious conversation about diversity and get some flavor up in this. It’s easier to be President of the United States as a black person than be the head of the studio or head of a network.”
He also praised the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, for attempting to affect change in the institution’s ranks. But he presented those listening with a caveat. “Not sure if you now this, but the U.S. Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be the minority in this country,” he said. “People in positions of hiring, you better get smart. Your workforce should reflect what this country looks like.”
The ceremony Saturday was held to present honorary awards to Lee, actress Gena Rowlands and Debbie Reynolds. The Academy, which previously bestowed him with a Student Academy Award in 1983 for his NYU thesis film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, called the director a “champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers.”
The rest of Lee’s speech, which lasted 18 minutes, focused on his career, from drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to challenging the Teamsters for its lack of diversity when he was filming Malcolm X. He thanked his family and gave special attention to his grandmother, who put whim through film school and helped finance his first feature-length picture She’s Gotta Have It.
Many people within and outside of Hollywood criticized this year’s Academy Awards for an overabundance of white nominees. Perhaps as an about-face, the institution signed on Chris Rock as 2016’s host.