Spike Lee was surprised to learn that he was being honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a group he hadn't been afraid to criticize in the past for its lack of diversity.
"This came out of nowhere, but that's how blessings often come," Lee said when reached by phone Thursday after the academy announced it would present him an honorary Governors Award. "I'm very happy and humbled."
The academy will also present an honorary Oscar to veteran independent film actress Gena Rowlands and give the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to versatile entertainer Debbie Reynolds. All three awards are to be handed out at the academy's Governors Awards dinner Nov. 14 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland.
Long one of the country's most prominent African American directors, Lee, 58, said he thought his selection, 32 years after he won a student Academy Award for his New York University thesis film, reflected in part a change in the organization's demographics.
"The academy is different now," said Lee, who was nominated for Oscars for original screenplay for 1989's racially charged "Do the Right Thing" and for documentary feature for 1997's "4 Little Girls," about the young victims of an infamous church bombing in Alabama in the 1960s.
"[Academy President] Cheryl Boone Isaacs has done a lot to bring diversity to the academy, both in terms of race and gender... Not just the academy, but our businesses, companies, studios, networks... we need to reflect what the U.S. looks like today... 'Ozzie and Harriet,' 'Leave It to Beaver,' them days are over."
At a TCM Classic Film Festival screening this spring of his 1992 film "Malcolm X," Lee pointed out that the academy often gave Oscars as "makeup calls" for previous work, like a sports referee who compensates for a prior mistake.
At the time, Lee was talking about "Malcolm X" star Denzel Washington, who was nominated for his performance in that film and 1999's "The Hurricane," but won for 2001's "Training Day." Asked Thursday whether he thought the honorary Oscar was the academy's makeup call for his career, which also includes the movies "She's Gotta Have It," "Jungle Fever" and "Inside Man," Lee laughed.
"People can go to IMDB ... and answer that question for themselves," he said.
Boone Issacs said this year's Governors Award honorees were "part of the normalization" of the more than 7,000-member organization, which in the last three years has invited a larger, more diverse group of people to join. The academy has been criticized for its overwhelmingly white, male membership. The absence of any minority nominees in the acting categories for the 2014 Oscars also came under intense fire.
"Our eyes are open," Boone Isaacs said. "This is where we get to recognize those who have contributed so much. It just happened this year to be two women and an African American male."
Once part of the annual Oscars telecast, the Governors Awards are now a separate event, more intimate in scale and not televised. Last year's event featured a moving speech by honoree Harry Belafonte, an early civil right activist in Hollywood who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Governors Awards have also become a popular stop on the awards season campaign trail.
"[The event] is reminiscent of a period of time none of us were around for, when the Oscars were at the Roosevelt Hotel or the Biltmore," Boone Isaacs said. "Everybody wants to go. It's fun to walk among so many stars, eating drinking, laughing."
Rowlands, 85, who received Academy Award nominations for her lead performances in "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Gloria," both films directed by her husband and frequent collaborator, John Cassavetes, is perhaps best known to young audiences today for her role in the 2004 romantic weepie "The Notebook."
"Gena is a leading lady and yet a character actress," Boone Isaacs said. "For many decades, she has been in the forefront of the independent world. She has stood the test of time."
Reynolds, 83, who has appeared in more than 40 feature films and received an Oscar nomination for her performance in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," is being honored for her work as a founding member of the Thalians, a charitable organization sustained by entertainers to promote awareness and treatment of mental health issues.
Boone Isaacs said the academy is close to naming its producers for the 2016 Oscars, which will take place Feb. 28 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and air on ABC.
"You look for those who have a vision for the evening as well as an understanding of a television show," she said of the qualities the academy is seeking in its producers. "The Governors Awards is an intimate evening, and the Oscar show is our big night out."