President Donald Trump took a bizarre swipe at Spike Lee in the wake of the director’s Oscars victory on Sunday night. Hours later, Trump accused Lee of undertaking a “racist hit” against him in his acceptance speech, in which Lee did not name Trump but encouraged viewers to “mobilize” around 2020.
“Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans ... than almost any other Pres!” Trump tweeted on Monday.
Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts,etc.) than almost any other Pres!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2019
Lee was awarded his first competitive Oscar in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for BlacKkKlansman. The film follows the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s who with a white colleague sets out to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. In his acceptance speech (which he read from a piece of paper), Lee put his win in racial and historical context, noting that it is Black History Month. He talked about his family and his ancestors as well.
What seems to have gotten to Trump most was Lee’s mention of the upcoming elections.
“The 2020 presidential election is around the corner,” Lee said. “Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.”
Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing earned him a Best Screenplay nomination at the 1990s Oscars — but not victory. The film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, or Lee for Best Director. Lee received an honorary Oscar in 2015 in recognition of his accomplished career in film.
It’s not clear exactly what Trump contends was the “racist hit” within Lee’s remarks. While race was certainly a theme of his speech, he did not explicitly reference Trump. Here’s Lee’s full speech:
The word today is “irony.” The date, the 24th. The month, February, which also happens to be the shortest month of the year, which also happens to be Black History Month. The year, 2019. The year, 1619. History. Her story. 1619. 2019. 400 years.
Four hundred years, our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and bought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.
My grandmother … who lived to be 100 years young, who was a Spelman College graduate even though her mother was a slave. My grandmother, who saved 50 years of social security checks to put her first grandchild — she called me Spikie-poo — she put me through Morehouse College and NYU grad film. NYU!
Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.
Lee’s speech was met with a standing ovation.
Lee also mentioned Trump while speaking with reporters on Sunday evening after his win when asked about how he thought BlacKkKlansman had “changed society.” He cited racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 and Trump’s equivocal response to it.
“The car drove down that one street in Virginia, and the president of the United States did not reject, refute, did not denounce the Klan, alt-right, and neo-Nazis,” he said, referring to a white supremacist man who drove through a crowd of people in Charlottesville and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. “This film, whether we won Best Picture or not, this film will stand the test of time being on the right side of history.”
Of course Trump responded to Spike Lee
That Trump would respond to Lee’s remarks isn’t surprising. It’s something he does a lot when other public figures criticize him, including in awards shows.
At the 2018 Tony Awards, actor Robert De Niro got a standing ovation for his anti-Trump remarks. “I’m gonna say one thing: Fuck Trump,” De Niro said. “It’s no longer ‘down with Trump.’ It’s ‘fuck Trump.’”
Trump responded on Twitter, calling De Niro a “very Low IQ individual” and telling him, “Wake up Punchy!”
...realize the economy is the best it’s ever been with employment being at an all time high, and many companies pouring back into our country. Wake up Punchy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
Trump also attacked actress Meryl Streep after a speech she gave at the 2017 Golden Globes in which she criticized Trump for mocking a disabled reporter on the campaign trail.
“There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good, there was nothing good about it, but it was effective and it did its job,” Streep said. “It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.”
Trump responded by calling Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big.”
Trump often steps into fights like these to stoke the flames of culture wars that helped propel him to the White House. He and many conservatives often cast themselves as being on the side of everyday men and women in juxtaposition with the supposed Hollywood elite. (Even though Trump is a billionaire and has for decades been a fixture in celebrity culture.) He took the opportunity of this year’s Oscars to try to stir up divisions again.
The news moves fast. Catch up at the end of the day: Subscribe to Today, Explained, Vox’s daily news podcast, or sign up for our evening email newsletter, Vox Sentences.