With “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee became only the sixth black filmmaker to earn an Oscar nomination as Best Director. It was a long time coming for the man who helped usher in a new black cinema with “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Malcolm X” (1992) and other groundbreaking works. Now that he’s finally in the running, will he be the first black director to win?
Lee burst onto the scene with the micro-budget “She’s Gotta Have It,” which brought him an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. He seemed poised to break the Oscar door down with “Do the Right Thing,” a scorching examination of modern day race relations for which he earned Golden Globe nominations for writing, directing, and producing. But the academy recognized it only for Lee’s script and Danny Aiello‘s performance, both of which lost. (It’s no small irony that that year’s Best Picture winner was “Driving Miss Daisy,” a more benign look at racism of the past.)
Two years later John Singleton became the first black filmmaker to earn a Best Director nomination for his debut feature “Boyz N the Hood” (1991). At 24 years old, he was also the youngest person ever to compete for that prize, a record that still stands. But he lost to Jonathan Demme, who got carried along in a “Silence of the Lambs” sweep.
It took 18 years for another black filmmaker to earn Oscar consideration. In 2009 Lee Daniels became the first to contend in both Best Director and Best Picture races for “Precious.” However, Kathryn Bigelow prevailed in both categories for “The Hurt Locker,” making history of her own as the first (and so far, only) woman to win Best Director.
Steve McQueen made history as the first black filmmaker to direct a Best Picture winner with “12 Years a Slave” (2013). He was also a producer of the film, which made him the first (and to date only) black producer to win Best Picture, though he lost Best Director to the category’s first Hispanic victor, Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”).
Three years after that Barry Jenkins‘s “Moonlight” (2016) pulled off a surprise victory for Best Picture. Jenkins, however, lost the directing prize to Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), but he did take home Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney).
And the very next year Jordan Peele became the first black filmmaker to earn bids for writing, directing and producing the same film with “Get Out” (2017). Peele was rewarded for his original screenplay, losing Best Director and Best Picture to Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”). Peele, in fact, just made history as the first black producer to earn multiple Oscar nominations, since he’s now contending again for “BlacKkKlansman.”
It’s shocking that in those intervening years Lee went largely ignored by the academy. His epic biopic “Malcolm X” earned nominations just for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design. He competed in Best Documentary Feature for “4 Little Girls” (1997), but films like “Crooklyn” (1994), “Clockers” (1995), “He Got Game” (1998), “Bamboozled” (2000), “25th Hour” (2002), and “Inside Man” (2006) laid goose-eggs.
2018 was a strong year for black cinema overall. Ryan Coogler‘s top box office earner “Black Panther” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (a first for the superhero genre). Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” brought him a screenwriting bid (he and Lee are the first ever repeat nominees among black writers). Peter Ramsey‘s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” seems poised for a historic win for Best Animated Feature. And films by McQueen (“Widows”), Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”) and George Tillman Jr. (“The Hate U Give”) earned rave reviews.
Though Lee received an Honorary Oscar in 2016, he has yet to win a competitive prize. He’s got three chances to prevail this year, with nominations for writing, directing and producing. Of those three, his best chance according to our odds is Best Adapted Screenplay. He’s currently holding first place on our racetrack with odds of 31/10. He just won the BAFTA Award for his script, and if the Writers Guild Awards go his way, he’ll look even stronger for a victory from the academy.
The directing race is a little trickier, since “Roma” helmer Cuaron has dominated that category with victories at the DGA, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards. It would be a tall order for Lee to leapfrog into first place (our odds currently rank him second at 39/10). But if there’s one thing he’s been known for over the last 30 years, it’s causing a disruption.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on February 24.