The nominations for the 91st Academy Awards have been announced, and per usual there were some things of note. How did Toni Collette not get nominated for her performance in Hereditary? Does the Academy hate Mister Rogers? Who are these people that think Vice is good? Each of these is worth exploring separately, but another big takeaway is that both Black Panther and BlacKKKlansman are nominated for Best Picture.
Black Panther was not only the highest grossing domestic release of 2018 (just the third film in history to gross $700 million), but it was critically acclaimed as well, currently holding a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Its nomination for Best Picture makes it the first superhero movie to receive that honor. The fact that a $200 million blockbuster that thematically wrestles with pan-African identity could even be nominated is worth a celebration in itself. That doesn’t even cover the other six nominations the film earned. Funny enough, people may be able to thank Black Panther’s big screen arrival to the man who first put any mention of the character on the big screen. That, of course, is BlacKKKlansman director Spike Lee.
For the first time in his career, Spike Lee is nominated for Best Director. The honor is significant in that he’s no stranger to Academy recognition. His seminal film Do The Right Thing (1989) earned him his very first nomination in the category of Best Original Screenplay. Almost a decade later, 4 Little Girls (1997), the film about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, would earn him a nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
At his best, Spike Lee has captured, perhaps better than any other black filmmaker, the cultural momentum of African American life.
BlacKKKlansman tells the real-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) — the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department—who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a white man. Upon the film’s release, it received critical acclaim and was widely seen as a return to form for Lee.
Lee’s career dates back to the 1986 release of his debut film She’s Gotta Have It (which has since been adapted into a Netflix original series) and was followed by School Daze in ‘88. Both films were well received, but it was his 1989 film Do The Right Thing that elevated Lee’s status as a director. On the surface, it mainly focuses on a day in the life of a pizza delivery man named Mookie (played by Lee), but it’s pulsing with commentary about racial tensions between Brooklyn residents as well as those between African-Americans and the police. That social commentary, along with the distinct look and feel of the neighborhood where it’s set, the colorful characters, and the emotionally charged finale, are just a handful of characteristics that have become synonymous with Lee’s work. The film received critical acclaim and has since been added to the National Film Registry. Although it earned Lee his first Academy Award nomination, he would ultimately lose to Tom Schulman for Dead Poets Society.
At his best, Lee has captured, perhaps better than any other black filmmaker, the cultural momentum of African-American life. He’s remained vocal about the importance of African-American history, with films such as Malcolm X and Miracle At St. Anna. He’s offered his take on current issues that are unique to black life (the aforementioned School Daze, Jungle Fever, Chi-Raq). He’s also never shied away from being a proud New Yorker, as several of his films are set in his native Brooklyn (Crooklyn, He Got Game, Red Hook Summer). What makes Lee such an interesting figure in the world of modern film is that he’s clearly an admirer and student of classic cinema, but has consistently tried to offer an outsider’s perspective. A common criticism of his work is that he often gets in his own way with bloated plots and story beats that don’t always fit, or that his message sometimes comes across as preachy. While his dedication is admirable, one starts to wonder if the scarcity of black filmmakers working for major studios, let alone being recognized by the Academy, drives his tendency to overindulge. How many other filmmakers of color are working as consistently as him, with the freedom to tackle so many of these issues? There are points in his career (2004’s She Hate Me) where it seems like he really just wants the void to be filled with anything he can throw at it, rather than run the risk of it disappearing altogether.
And that brings us back to BlacKKKlansman, and how incredible it is that the Academy is finally giving recognition to Lee’s work as a director. Among its six nominations, Lee has three (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture).
Along with the aforementioned nominations for his films, Denzel Washington earned a Best Actor nomination in 1993 for playing Malcolm X in Lee’s film of the same name. He lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, and Lee has remained vocal in his criticism of that decision. More recently, he was one of several black celebrities who boycotted the awards in 2016 amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. His relationship with the Academy has had some tense moments, so for him to finally receive these nominations, for a film that doesn’t stray far from what he’s been doing for most of his career, almost makes this a feel-good story.
BlacKKKlansman feels like a natural extension of Lee’s most recognizable work. The film isn’t set in Brooklyn, but it does feature an everyman protagonist who must learn that he doesn’t have all the answers. And through that protagonist, Lee gives himself the right balance to deliver the messages he wants. Whether it’s dealing with the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement, militant approaches to social justice, America’s history of lynching, the effects of white supremacy on non-black minorities, or white supremacy’s larger social influence, Lee is able to tackle race in a way that serves as both a genuine history lesson and a lens through which people ought to examine the current political and social climate. The relationships between Ron Stallworth and the other characters help Lee communicate a multilayered commentary on race. The audience doesn’t just see how Ron approaches the topic as it relates to the Klan, but he also has to figure out how to work with his fellow police officers, as he is the first and only black man on the force. The film almost takes on too much weight in giving him a love interest (Laura Harrier), but because she’s an activist, Ron is forced to consider that even within the black community, people have varying ideas on how to achieve justice. Each of these dynamics serves a specific role that allows for Ron to grow throughout the film.
Commentary aside, the film scored well with critics and audiences because it allows the audience to have fun at the expense of people who often get the last laugh. Make no mistake, the Klan looks terrible here. Not just in the inherent evil that they stand for, but in perhaps being some of the dumbest individuals Lee has ever featured in any of his films. These are the things that make the heavy subject matter palatable. The very idea that Ron’s partner Flip (Adam Driver) is a Jewish man that has to pose as an aspiring KKK member, is one giant joke in itself. There is no coincidence that David Duke, former grandmaster of the KKK and one of the film’s antagonists, leads chants of “America first.” Lee undercuts that humor periodically through the film, most notably in a finale that draws a direct line between the KKK and the 2017 Charlottesville rally (that David Duke attended) which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.
Perhaps the most noteworthy bits about Lee being nominated this year is that the person who brought the project to him, Jordan Peele (also nominated for Best Picture as a producer on BlacKKKlansman), is the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out. That film, about a black man who goes to meet his white girlfriend’s family, makes race the key ingredient in its plot and its broader commentary, much like a majority of Spike Lee’s work. It’s also similar to another film that is nominated for Best Picture this year, Marvel’s Black Panther, which oddly enough brings the character’s journey to the big screen full circle.
Spike Lee’s relationship with the Academy has had some tense moments, so for him to finally receive these nominations, for a film that doesn’t stray far from what he’s been doing for most of his career, makes this a feel-good story.
Perhaps we should thank Spike Lee for that.
In the screenplay that earned him his first Academy Award nomination, Do The Right Thing, there is a scene in which the character Junebug is trying to organize a boycott of Sal’s Pizza. After asking some people in the neighborhood, he’s mostly met with no’s. One of the reasons offered? Black Panther. “Black Panther eats pizza. We eat pizza,” says Punchy (Leonard Thomas) as he holds up a single issue of, you guessed it, the Black Panther comic book. This mention probably didn’t pique general audience interest quite like Chadwick Boseman’s debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War as the first live-action appearance of the character, but the idea of manifesting these things into existence isn’t complete nonsense.
As it stands, neither Black Panther nor BlacKKKlansman is favored to win Best Picture, but a strong argument could be made about Spike’s chances to take home the Oscar for Best Director, which would make him the first black recipient of that award.
The first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and the chance of us seeing the first black winner for Best Director? Punchy from Do The Right Thing had the right idea.
Black Panther blazes a trail in cinematic history. Spike Lee blazes one, too.