Honorary Oscar Recipient Spike Lee Also a Frequent Critic of the Academy

The iconic filmmaker has had a rocky relationship with the Academy: it kick-started his career 32 years ago with a Student Academy Award but it's also snubbed many of his films and those of other black filmmakers, prompting him to declare that Oscars "don't matter."
Alexandra Wyman/Invision/AP
Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee at the Oscars in 2014

Spike Lee, probably the most famous black filmmaker in the history of American cinema and long an outspoken critic of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will be presented with an honorary Oscar at the Academy's seventh Governors Awards on Nov. 14, the organization announced Thursday. At 58, Lee is the youngest male tapped for an honorary Oscar — which historically has been something of a lifetime achievement award — since one went to 46-year-old Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers in 1969.

Now the question is: what will he say when accepting the honor? 

Lee's long and complicated relationship with the Academy dates back 32 years. In 1983, he won a Student Academy Award for Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, his NYU thesis film, which helped to put him on the map. Just a few years later, his films She's Gotta Have It (1986), which premiered at Cannes and won the best first feature Indie Spirit Award, and School Daze (1988) made him a major player on the indie scene. And then came Do the Right Thing.

The 1989 dramedy, which chronicles simmering racial tensions that eventually boil over on a block in Brooklyn, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May — and, despite a rapturous reception, ended up receiving not a single prize, to the shock of many and the vocal displeasure of Lee. When it opened in the U.S. in June, it sparked nationwide debate, discussion and further awards buzz. (The Los Angeles Film Critics chose the film as its best picture and Lee as its best director.)

But when Oscar nominations were announced a few months later, Lee again was left disappointed: the only acknowledgement of Do the Right Thing came in the categories of best supporting actor (Danny Aiello) and best original screenplay (for Lee). Adding insult to injury, the film that landed the most nominations — and ultimately won best picture — was Driving Miss Daisy, a film directed by a white man about a servile black man catering to a bigoted white woman.

In 2011, Lee, still stung by that experience, told Charlie Rose, "In 1989, Do the Right Thing was not even nominated [for best picture]. What film won best picture in 1989? Driving Miss motherf—ing Daisy! That’s why [Oscars] don’t matter. Because 20 years later, who’s watching Driving Miss Daisy?” He added in 2015, "Are they going to choose a film where you have the relatively passive black servant, or are they going to choose a film with a menacing 'Radio Raheem'? A lot of times, people are going to vote for what they're comfortable with, and anything that's threatening to them they won't."

Lee's frustrations with the Academy undoubtedly were compounded by the recognition — or lack thereof — that his subsequent "Spike Lee Joints" have received from the organization. Mo' Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and 25th Hour (2002) all premiered at major international film festivals and were up for or received honors from other major awards groups, but only Malcolm X received any acknowledgement from the Academy: a best actor nom for Denzel Washington, plus a best costume design nom, ultimately losing both.

Meanwhile, Lee himself has been a contender only one other time: 4 Little Girls (1997), his film about the young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, was nominated for best documentary feature, losing to The Long Way Home, a film about the birth of Israel that was produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier and Richard Trank. Lee attended the ceremony but said afterward, "I didn't have a chance. I knew that. Against a rabbi? Put the Jewish vote in the academy against the one or two black members and what do you think?"

In 2014, Lee, by now the artistic director of the graduate film program at NYU, and the Academy, under new management that had a stated goal of increasing the diversity of its membership, seemed to reach a detente. That spring, he returned to the Oscars hoping to see 12 Years a Slave become the first film directed by a black man to win best picture — and it did. ("I was very happy for Steve McQueen," he said later. "I wanted to be there because I knew it was going to be historic.") And that summer, the same Academy that had once turned a cold shoulder towards Do the Right Thing celebrated its 25th anniversary with bicoastal screenings and Q&As with key people associated with the film, including Lee.

But when, in January of this year, Selma, a critically-acclaimed biopic about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was denied Oscar noms for best director (Ava DuVernay could have become the first black woman ever nominated) and best actor (David Oyelowo was widely expected to make the cut but neither he nor any other black people actually did), it clearly reopened some old wounds for Lee. Hours after the announcement, he vented: "If I saw Ava today I'd say, 'You know what? F--- 'em.'"

He continued, "Anyone who thinks this year was gonna be like last year is retarded. There were a lot of black folks up there with 12 Years a Slave, Steve, Lupita [Nyong'o], Pharrell [Williams]. It's in cycles of every 10 years. Once every 10 years or so I get calls from journalists about how people are finally accepting black films. Before last year, it was the year [2002] with Halle Berry, Denzel and Sidney Poitier. It's a 10-year cycle. So I don't start doing backflips when it happens."

"The Academy is trying to be more diverse," he added. "[Academy president] Cheryl [Boone Isaacs] is trying to open it up and have more diversity amongst the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But with Selma, it's not the first time it's happened, and every time it does I say, 'You can't go to awards like the Oscars... for validation. The validation is if your work still stands 25 years later.'"

Now the question is: what will Lee have to say on the one night in his life on which he is guaranteed to receive an Oscar?

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