Spike Lee and the Ambivalent Academy
For the average, non-movie-obsessed person on the street, it may be surprising to learn that Spike Lee didn’t win a competitive Oscar until 2018, a year that (somehow) also marked his first nomination in the Best Director category. But Lee’s shadow has loomed large over the Academy for his entire career. Long before the #OscarsSoWhite movement began, Lee was the unwitting face of the Academy’s shortcomings on diversity and inclusion—particularly when it came to recognizing Black film and filmmakers.
Lee’s connection to the Academy predates even his first feature film. Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, Lee’s master’s thesis film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, was the first student film to be shown at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films festival, and received a Student Academy Award in 1983. The Student Academy Awards, which are separate from the main Oscars ceremony, can herald future filmmaking success--past winners include Robert Zemeckis, Trey Parker, Pixar’s John Lasseter and Pete Docter, and Cary Joji Fukunaga--and many recipients of the Student Academy Award were subsequently nominated for competitive Oscars in the short film category. Given the pedigree of Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, the film world should’ve expected big things from the young up-and-comer who made it.
Lee’s first two features mirrored the typical path to success of many a wunderkind director. His debut film She’s Gotta Have It was a moderate commercial success and a critical darling. It received two Independent Spirit Award nominations, and Lee himself won the prize for Best First Feature. His sophomore effort School Daze got more mixed reviews, but found an ally in Roger Ebert, who would continue to champion much of Lee’s work as his career progressed. With key critical support and recognition from the independent film community, Lee seemed poised for an Oscars breakthrough.
And the electric Do The Right Thing should have been it. A box office success that earned six times its budget and played the Cannes film festival, Do The Right Thing was a critical smash, named the best film of 1989 by Siskel and Ebert and the Chicago and Los Angeles Film Critics Associations, and a Best Picture and Director nominee at the Golden Globes. Although it received near-universal acclaim from film critics, some cultural and political commentators balked at the film’s content, even going so far as to suggest that the film might incite race riots. As we’ve noted, “controversy” has frequently and unfairly been appended to Lee’s work, and Do The Right Thing was no exception. The conversation surrounding the film became mired in political and racial controversies largely removed from the film’s merit, and when nomination day came, Do The Right Thing came up short in most of the major categories. It ended up with only two: Best Supporting Actor nomination for Danny Aiello and an Original Screenplay nomination for Spike Lee, which taken in light of his absence from the Directing and Picture categories—particularly when, at the time, no Black filmmaker had been nominated in either category in the Academy’s 62-year history—appeared more like a consolation prize than anything else.
The Academy’s failure to nominate Do The Right Thing in the top categories didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, when presenting one of the other Best Picture nominees at that year’s ceremony, Kim Basinger called out the Academy for its omission of Lee’s masterpiece. Both Aiello and Lee would lose that night: Aiello to future Lee collaborator Denzel Washington in Glory, and Lee, in one of the strongest lineups the original screenplay category has ever seen, found himself in the loser’s circle with Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Stephen Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape), and Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), behind eventual winner Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society).
His follow up to Do The Right Thing, the jazz-infused romantic dramedy Mo’ Better Blues, got no awards attention to speak of. Jungle Fever played Cannes and was well-received there (the festival awards jury even revived a then-defunct supporting actor prize and gave it to Samuel L. Jackson), but it didn’t make much of an awards impact in the states.
Enter Malcolm X. A historical epic spanning decades. A period piece. A biopic of an influential historical and civil rights figure. And a towering central performance from an already Oscar-anointed star. On paper, Malcolm X is the type of movie that seems designed to win Academy Awards. Yet, despite rave reviews, including prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Berlin Film Festival, it received only two well-deserved nominations: for star Denzel Washington’s undeniable lead performance (whose chances to win were no doubt hobbled by both the presence of then-Oscarless Al Pacino in the same category and Washington’s recent win) and future winner Ruth Carter’s gorgeous period costumes. Neither Carter nor Washington took home statues that night, however, and Lee himself received no nominations for the film, which was otherwise ignored by the Academy—due probably to a combination of the Academy’s overwhelmingly homogenous membership, backlash resulting from Lee’s blistering criticism of their failure to recognize Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X’s status as a similarly “controversial” figure.
From 1993-2017, Spike Lee received one (1!) nomination from the Academy: Best Documentary Feature in 1997 for 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by the KKK in 1963 and the four young girls who were killed in that attack. Nothing else in that 14 year span (which includes Crooklyn, Clockers, He Got Game, 25th Hour, and Inside Man, among others) got a shred of attention.
But as time passed, it became increasingly clear that, among some segments of the industry—especially within the African-American filmmaking community—Lee wasn’t just respected, but revered. When Halle Berry became the first (and to date, only) Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in 2001, she thanked Spike Lee for casting her in her first role in 1991’s Jungle Fever. And despite his lack of personal awards hardware, he expanded his influence by teaching film at his alma mater and using his clout as a producer to launch the careers of other young Black filmmakers including Gina Prince-Blythewood (Love & Basketball), Dee Rees (Pariah), and his cousin Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man). To this day, young Black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler cite Lee’s work as pivotal influences in their own careers.
And the Academy was changing, too. Thanks in large part to the concerted efforts of then-President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson, the Academy undertook a high profile campaign to diversify its membership to more adequately reflect the demographics of the industry and the country in response to the outcry from activists and observers when the Academy failed to nominate a single performer of color for two years in a row in 2015 and 2016. At the 2015 Governor’s Awards, Spike Lee finally got his long overdue Oscar, albeit an honorary one. After a tribute from a trio of three of his most famous collaborators—Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and Samuel L. Jackson—Lee accepted his award with a barnburner of a speech, reflecting on his entire life and career and providing an unsparing analysis of how much work “liberal” Hollywood still has left to do when it comes to race.
And then, finally, 28 years after Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee got his due. Following in the steps of legends like Peter O’Toole and Henry Fonda, Lee joined the rare club of individuals to earn competitive Oscar nominations after receiving an Honorary Award, when BlacKkKlansman received six nominations at the 2018 Academy Awards, including three for Lee personally in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories—the third of which he won. In many ways, Lee was the star of that whole ceremony. When Ruth Carter became the first African American winner of the Best Costume Design Oscar for Black Panther, she thanked Lee for providing her first break in the industry, and in the funniest and most unexpected segment of the night, Barbra Streisand gave a stirring tribute to Lee's Best Picture nominee.
In the 30-plus years since Do The Right Thing’s release, the Academy has slowly begun recognizing more Black talent behind the camera. In just the past ten years, we’ve seen the first ever Black winners in seven categories: Best Picture (Twelve Years a Slave), Original Screenplay (Get Out), Adapted Screenplay (Precious, Moonlight, BlacKkKlansman, and Twelve Years a Slave), Costume Design and Production Design (Black Panther), Animated Feature (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and Documentary Feature (Undefeated and O.J.: Made in America). But the Best Director Oscar has remained elusive. Two years after Lee was snubbed for Do The Right Thing, John Singleton became the first Black Best Director nominee in 1991 for Boyz n the Hood. He would be followed by Lee Daniels for Precious in 2009, Steve McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave in 2013, Barry Jenkins for Moonlight in 2016, Jordan Peele for Get Out in 2017, and Lee himself in 2018. That’s it. Six men, none of whom took home the prize. But this year, Lee is receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his latest film, Da 5 Bloods. Will he make history again by becoming the first Black director to be nominated a second time and the first to take home the gold? Only time will tell, but when it comes to trailblazing, I wouldn’t bet against him.