In 2016, Spike Lee was given an Honorary Academy Award for being “a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers.” After Sidney Poitier, he was the second Black director to be so honored and said in his acceptance speech that it had “been a long time coming.” As he reflected on his long career, he said that it had “not been easy” and shed light on the struggles of Black creatives in the film industry. Indeed, there are still seven competitive Oscar categories in which a Black person has never won, including the most prestigious: Best Director. However, Lee may be the one to make Oscar history this year.
Lee’s 25th narrative feature film has been hailed as one of his greatest achievements since its Netflix release last June. Jocelyn Noveck of The Associated Press calls it “the right movie for right now,” citing the “current national reckoning over racial justice.” The film follows a group of sexagenarian war veterans who return to Vietnam to honor their fallen commanding officer and recover the treasure they left there. It was Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott who made the decision to change the characters from White to Black, which gives the story a completely different and much deeper meaning.
Marc Bernardin (Entertainment Weekly) refers to Lee as “a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new.” By now, he has mastered the art of mixing entertainment with searing social commentary, and, with this film, creates an authentic analysis of the Black military experience. It is his latest work of art in a career devoted to creatively but accurately recounting Black history.
Lee began his directing career in 1979 and won a Student Academy Award four years later for his first feature film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop.” Since then, in addition to his honorary award, he has been nominated in five different Oscar categories, starting with a Best Original Screenplay bid for “Do the Right Thing” in 1990 and then for Best Documentary Feature for “4 Little Girls” in 1998. In 2019, he earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman.”
While Lee won the writing award and now has the honor of being a competitive Oscar winner, his directorial talents, and indeed those of all Black directors, continue to be neglected. Two years after Lee was snubbed for directing “Do the Right Thing,” John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”) competed at the 64th Academy Awards as the first Black Best Director nominee. Twenty-nine years later, only four others besides Lee have been added to the list: Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”); McQueen and Jenkins lost despite helming the Best Picture winners.
If he prevails for “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee would not only be the first Black person to win the award. His bid alone would make him the first to compete for it twice. And, at 64, he would also be among the oldest winners in the category, behind Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), George Cukor (“My Fair Lady”), Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”), and Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”).
Currently, Lee ranks sixth in our Best Director race with 21/2 odds. Frontrunner Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland” – 7/2 odds) has won nearly every critics award so far and is highly favored to win the Oscar, but Lee may become her strongest challenger. He has earned several critics award nominations of his own, as well as wins from the National Board of Review and the Hawaii Film Critics Society. As with “BlacKkKlansman,” he could be nominated at the Oscars for writing, directing, and producing this film. In the end, voters may not be able to resist making Lee the first Black Best Director winner.
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