'The ref made a bad call': Spike Lee reacts to Green Book win

The veteran director was disappointed that the film, set amidst racial turmoil in the 1960s Deep South, took top honours.

The director was visibly distraught after the controversial win, and even attempted to leave the theatre

Spike Lee holds up brass knuckles reading "hate" and "love" from his iconic film "Do The Right Thing" as he arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

During the Academy Awards telecast, there was a moment right after Julia Roberts announced the winner for the best picture award that was so quick and subtle that it was easy to miss.

There was the uproar of applause, but it was mixed with what sounded like a gasp. As the Green Book team walked to the stage, the Oscars panned up for a wide shot, just enough to visibly make out Spike Lee, dressed all in purple, standing in the aisle, almost blocking them.

Multiple sources also reported that Lee, visibly distraught, walked to the back of the Dolby Theatre in order to leave, returning to his seat only after the speeches were over.

Green Book is a story about race relations in the U.S. Deep South during the 1960s, told through the point of view of real-life character Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American chauffeur, and Don Shirley, the acclaimed pianist who hired him to drive him to his various tour dates.

The film had come under scrutiny for factual inaccuracies, according to the Shirley family, but also for what some have deemed the "white saviour" trope, in which a distinctly African-American story is told through the point of view of a non-Black character.

Director Peter Farrelly, during his acceptance speech, described the film as coming from a place of love, but also forgot to thank Shirley.

Backstage, Lee, champagne in hand, addressed a group of reporters. "This is my sixth glass, and you know why," he said. Lee was also nominated for best picture for his film BlacKkKlansman, and won best adapted screenplay, marking his first Oscar win. 

When asked about his reaction to Green Book winning, Lee joked, "I thought I was courtside at the [Madison Square] Garden. The ref made a bad call."

Many, including Lee, made comparisons to the time when Driving Miss Daisy won the best picture Oscar in the same year Lee's acclaimed Do the Right Thing was released, but wasn't nominated.

"I'm snakebit," he said. "Every time someone is driving somebody, I lose," he said. "But they changed the seating arrangement."

Later on, when the production team behind Green Book addressed the room, they were asked, first and foremost, about forgetting to thank Shirley.

"You get nervous up there," said screenwriter and Vallelonga's son, Nick. "Don Shirley, obviously, we all thanked Mahershala, gave him a great thank you."

They were also asked about the reaction from the Shirley family, who claimed that the film fabricates many aspects of the relationship between the two characters.

"The Don Shirley family thing falls on me, but Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone," added Vallelonga. "He told me the story that he wanted to tell, he protected his private life and all other things about him, miraculous things about him. He's an amazing man. He told me if you're going to tell the story, tell it from your father, me, don't speak to anyone else, that's how you have to make it. Also, he told me don't make it till after I pass way, so I just kept my word to that man."

Director Peter Farrelly also added that, ultimately, they believed they were telling an important story. "And there's lots of ways to tell a story about that subject. This was our little story and I think it's as valid as any," he said. "And the message is, talk to each other and you'll find out we all have a lot in common. It's a hopeful message, because sometimes it seems that there is no hope, but there is; all we have to do is talk and we get closer together. I know that sounds corny and pollyanna-ish but it's the truth."

Lee, when asked to reflect on Green Book's win over BlacKkKlansman, was more succinct. Whether he won best picture or not, his film would "stand the test of time and be on the right side of history," he said before raising his glass in a toast and leaving the stage.


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