Oscars 2019: First win for Spike Lee was the right thing — but it could have been better
The Academy Awards have worked to improve representation of women and minorities since the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015. How have they done? USA TODAY
The Oscars had another chance to do the right thing Sunday night. And they did so, feting Spike Lee with his first Academy Award. But Academy, you could have done better.
For sure, the iconic filmmaker deserved an armful of awards for his latest culture-reflecting effort, “BlacKkKlansman,” and the way Lee showed our own continuing struggles with racism in modern times with the stylish and humorous tale of a 1970s African-American cop (John David Washington) and his white partner (Adam Driver) who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
The Academy, though, tends to right the wrongs of the past, or at least award those who haven’t gotten sufficient accolades for their works. Both would be true of Lee, who took home the adapted screenplay award Sunday: There’s probably a part of him still stinging from his 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing” being snubbed altogether in the best-picture race and “Driving Miss Daisy” taking the Oscar. A best-director nomination wouldn’t have been out of the question for that, or for the 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.”
Oscars 2019: The winners list
Call it fate, timing, kismet, whatever. Now, not then, was Lee's moment. But he lost best director this year to Alfonso Cuaron, who wasn't a bad choice, and best picture to "Green Book," which wasn't a great decision.
"Every time someone's driving a car I lose (best picture)," Lee said in the Oscars press room after the show, throwing more than a little shade. (An AP reporter tweeted Lee was "visibly angry" when "Green Book" won, "waving his arms in disgust and appearing to try to storm out of the Dolby Theatre.")
But, honestly, that's Lee just being Lee, the outspoken iconoclast.
John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace star in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman," about an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. MONKEYPAW PRODUCTIONS/BLUMHOUSE PRODUCTIONS
Fellow best-director nominees Cuaron and Pawel Pawlikowski roiled emotions with deeply affecting black-and-white works "Roma" and "Cold War," respectively. Adam McKay crafted a razor-sharp look at American politics and power players with "Vice." "The Favourite" director Yorgos Lanthimos made maybe the funniest period piece in years. But "BlacKkKlansman" was different from the rest, a vibrant and fiery film that simmers with relevance — and Lee's own passion.
And then there's best picture, won by "Green Book," a controversial dramedy that upset people in the way it treated its black subject as well as racism in the Jim Crow South. But "BlacKkKlansman" tackled the problems of the past and the present — its win would have meant much more on a night where diversity was largely celebrated during a ceremony that, in the past, has often struggled in that vein.
In the past 30 years, Lee has been as influential a filmmaker as any, a role model for a brilliant generation of black artists like Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins. And his resume is full of films whose timeliness remains uncanny.
“Do the Right Thing” captured the anger of the black community against racial injustice. “Bamboozled,” the 2000 satire that touched on minstrel shows and blackface, seems hugely relevant in light of recent news headlines. With 2015’s “Chi-Raq,” Lee used the template of a Greek comedy to fashion a female uprising and condemn gun and gang violence. “BlacKkKlansman” mirrors hate speech, brutal violence and visuals of racism past with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, protests, with Lee remembering victim Heather Heyer with the words “Rest in power.”
The Academy was well aware of all this prior to this year. “Do the Right Thing” didn’t nab Lee best director or picture nominations, but he did get a screenplay nod, and in 2015, Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar for his overall contributions to film.
Hollywood’s most prestigious night has seemingly been a source of both love and hate (or at least annoyed distaste) for Lee: Three years ago, he skipped the Oscars because of the lack of diversity among nominees and went to see his beloved New York Knicks instead. However, there was nothing but sheer jubilation and excited fist-pumping on Lee’s Instagram when “BlacKkKlansman” snagged six Oscar nominations. Not surprisingly, he went wild winning on Sunday night, going airborne in his gold Air Jordans while jumping into the awaiting arms of presenter and longtime friend Samuel L. Jackson.
It was a great moment made bittersweet in that it could've but didn't happen multiple times. But at least the right man finally captured one very elusive accolade.