Spike Lee Explains How Hollywood Can Better Support Black Filmmakers

Spike Lee on the set of Da 5 Bloods

The film industry is looking for ways to change, to progress. One way forward would be to continue highlighting black voices in the filmmaking community. When we do, we’re treated to unconventional, challenging stories like Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley, Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting, or the phenomenal work of Ryan Coogler.

It’s not enough, though. Films from filmmakers of color are finding larger audiences, but the industry can (and needs to) do more. For every Jordan Peele, there are 10 more filmmakers getting films released in theaters or on streaming. How can we change the system?

The iconic Spike Lee has been working the film industry as an Inside Man for decades. He makes uncompromising visions, laced with his insight and opinion, and he’s been doing it since his low-budget debut She’s Gotta Have It, filmed in 1985 for a reported $175,000. He’s back this month with Da 5 Bloods, a Vietnam War commentary that’s wrapped inside of a treasure hunt, boasting one of the best ensembles you will see on screen this year. When we spoke with Lee, we asked him his thoughts on how his industry can provide more opportunities for filmmakers of color, and he told us:

The answer is very simple. We need to have black and brown people in those lofty positions of the gatekeepers. These are the people who have the green-light votes. And very rarely do any of these studios have people of color in a position where they have a say in what gets made, and what doesn’t get made. I’ve been saying this for years. And that has not happened yet.

He’s not wrong. Walt Disney Studio’s current CEO, Bob Chapek, is a Caucasian man. Jim Gianopulos, a Greek-American businessman, runs Paramount Pictures. Warner Bros. currently is led by a woman, Ann Sarnoff, but she is not a person of color.

Spike Lee goes on to explain that changes at the highest levels of the studio system will not only have an effect on the types of films that are made and screened. Promotions such as these will have a trickle-down effect on the movies that compete for, and win, awards. He continued:

If that happens, you are going to see a change, just like the Academy changed. When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences changed… when they made that change to open up the ranks of the voting members, right away, you saw the result of that with the nominations and wins! And none of that stuff would have happened if they’d not made those changes.

He’s referring to the inclusion of movies such as Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (which won Best Picture this year), his own Blackkklansman, Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican drama Roma, and the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther in 2018, as well as Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017. Prior to these films finding their way into the current Oscar races, the Academy faced backlash in the form of the “Oscars So White” slogan.

Of course, it doesn’t help when Green Book wins over Black Panther, Blackkklansman and Roma. When Spike Lee and I start to discuss ridiculous Oscar choices, he reminds me:

Let’s go back to 1989, [and] Do the Right Thing! (Laughs) Driving Miss Daisy?

That year, Lee was nominated for a screenplay Oscar for what has become his seminal work, and he lost to the safe period piece. He clearly still holds a grudge to this day.

Some black filmmakers probably would love the chance to get to a point where they are competing against Driving Miss Daisy, instead of being overlooked altogether. Black Lives Matter has become a touchstone slogan as protestors make their voices heard in cities across America. But Black Films Matter, too, and we continue to hope that Spike Lee’s advice leads to systematic changes in the studio systems of Hollywood, so alternate programming can become mainstream programming, for all to see and enjoy.

You can begin to stream Da 5 Bloods on Netflix beginning on June 12.

Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.