This nation has never been ready for Spike Lee. For the last four decades, he’s dragged the cultural conversation on race in America forward, despite critics and audiences kicking and screaming. And yet, somehow, everyone seemingly considers him the angry one.
“The truth, though, is that anger has been extremely productive for Spike Lee,” is how the Guardian put it in its review of Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman. The Israeli paper Haaretz said nearly the same thing about the Oscar-nominated film, only with far more nuance and understanding: “Even though the movie doesn’t set out to generate emotional agitation, there is fury in it, expressed in its statement that nothing has changed in America since the 1970s, the period in which the story unfolds.”
Lee knows people expect him to be mad, but what seems to truly make him angry is how often his work gets dismissed for its fury instead of celebrated for being intellectual, insightful and intimidating the way, say, European filmmakers are. They’re serious geniuses; he’s an “angry black man.”
As Lee recently pointed out to the Chicago Sun-Times, “It may seem like I’m in a constant rage of anger. People define me. Now they’re going to add BlacKkKlansman to Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. But I’m going into my fourth decade as a filmmaker. If you look at the whole body of work, not all the films are about anger. If you look at my semi-autobiographical film Crooklyn and other films. They put that moniker on me over the years: ‘Angry black man.’ ‘Angry black filmmaker.’”
Fellow intense filmmaker Werner Herzog once famously threatened to kill Klaus Kinski, the star of five of his films, and Herzog meant it –– he pulled a gun on the actor; yet, Herzog rarely, if ever, gets labeled “an angry filmmaker.” Morose? Yes. Serious? Always. Intimidating? Certainly. But rarely is he called angry.
Obviously, calling Spike Lee “angry” is code. Translated from dog whistle, it means he’s “unapologetically black.” The majority of the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is old, male and pale. This explains why Lee’s work has been repeatedly snubbed by them. And each time they snub his films, it marks the progress of race relations in America — or the lack thereof. In fact, to snub Spike Lee has become an accidental way to track our nation’s growth.
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Do The Right Thing was released the same summer that New York’s racial tensions were inflamed by the news of the Central Park Five, one of the biggest stories of the 1980s. And NYC had already had numerous big tragic news stories in that excessive decade. Most of them involved race, violence and/or sexual violence. But this story had all three. It touched off a firestorm of race-based fears, Old Testament anger, and calls for vigilante violence led by a future president.
At the end of the 1980s, President Trump was a mouthy Manhattan real-estate developer who liked to see his face on TV. In May 1989, just weeks prior to the release of Do The Right Thing, The Donald took out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the five young black men then called the “Central Park Five.” They were accused (and later convicted) of raping a white woman who’d been jogging in Central Park at night. All five have since been exonerated; the City of New York had to pay out a $41 million settlement for their wrongful incarceration. Meanwhile, Donald Trump still thinks they’re guilty.
The fear-mongering media atmosphere in 1989 led to common usage by the evening news of terms like “super predator,” which stoked a fear of young black people that motivated the rise of mass incarceration. Do The Right Thing commented on that environment, capturing all of these red-hot electric threads running through the culture at that time.
The movie takes place on a single block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. It’s set to a Public Enemy soundtrack and climaxes with NYPD officers choking to death Radio Raheem, a mountain of a black man. Watching it now, it calls to mind Eric Garner’s terminal “I can’t breathe” moment, when he died of strangulation at the hands of NYPD officers. Lee had predicted it, right down to the phrase.
Lee’s masterpiece wasn’t angry, it was an unflinching portrait of ethnic tensions in a country built for white people, and it hit America like a right cross to the face. People were stunned. Critics were legit afraid of a movie. When’s the last time you remember pundits and newspaper columnists worrying a film would spark riots? But in his column for New York Magazine, journalist Joe Klein did exactly that when he wrote about how he feared Do the Right Thing would impact the city’s upcoming mayoral election. Of course, the article was about much more than that. Klein spoke of white fear, angry black men and boys, and he warned of the serious threats he saw to the social order. As Klein writes, “It may happen that black teenagers are more interested in Star Trek and Indiana Jones this summer than in Spike Lee –– but that hardly seems likely. If Lee does hook large black audiences, there’s a good chance the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions in the city. If they react violently — which can’t be ruled out…”
According to Klein, Lee’s unmistakable message to black teens was obvious: “The police are your enemy. The cops in this movie patrol the streets like Nazi concentration camp guards: they are vicious, unfeeling killers.” In 1989, there were no cell phone cameras. Rodney King wasn’t a name anyone knew. It was still extremely difficult to get white journalists like Klein to see, feel and understand what life was like for young black people and their interactions with law enforcement. Police brutality was typically blamed on black people, i.e., the victims. “If they’d act right, they wouldn’t have a problem,” was a common refrain in the culture. At the time, Trump told Larry King, “Maybe hate is what we need, if we’re going to get something done.”
Klein went on to articulate what he saw as Lee’s most dangerous message in Do The Right Thing: “White people are your enemy, even if they appear to be sympathetic.”
Instead of reading the film as an artistic message of warning, instead of seeing the systemic problem of racism in America, Klein saw imminent danger for white people, and he saw Lee as the instigator. In 1989, middle-aged people could still remember the infectious rage of the riots of the 1960s. They feared Lee was dragging the nation back to those angry times. They didn’t understand that Lee was actually dragging the country forward.
As art, Do The Right Thing deserved more than the Best Original Screenplay nomination it received. Many felt it should have been nominated for Best Picture. Instead, Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture. Looking back, it seems laughable how that film offers such a drastically different comment on race relations in America, with its chauffeur-driven, watered-down Martin Luther King Jr. message of equality. Meanwhile, Do the Right Thing offered the country a bracing shot that burned hot as hell.
Lee also lost the consolation prize, as Dead Poets Society took home the trophy for Best Original Screenplay. (Can you name the writer of Dead Poets Society? How about the director?) It’s a fine film, but it’s no masterpiece. It focuses on an offbeat white man (Robin Williams) as he teaches privileged white boys at a private school to be their authentic selves. How many ways can white boys be told to be their true selves? Apparently, there’s countless judging by American fiction.
Back in 1989, pretty much only film critic Roger Ebert sensed what Spike Lee had achieved. In his contemporaneous review, Ebert wrote, “It comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”
Spike Lee had showed America its reflection, but America wasn’t ready to see it.
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Two years after Lee was snubbed for Do The Right Thing, fellow black filmmaker John Singleton became the first black director to be nominated for Best Picture for Boyz n the Hood. It’s a good film; Ice Cube was incredible in it. Cuba Gooding Jr. earned a whole career off his performance. But it’s no Do The Right Thing. Yet, for the older white male Academy members and general audiences, Singleton’s film told a similarly powerful story. Looking back now, Boyz n the Hood didn’t confront racism as directly or as viscerally as Lee had. Instead, it showed its symptoms, its cycles and its victims.
It could be argued that the Oscar nomination for Boyz n the Hood was due to Singleton’s vibrant, stylish, violent, urgent portrayal of black trauma. (This is similar to how people now criticize Childish Gambino, who just won a Grammy for “This Is America.”) Unlike Singleton and Gambino, historic trauma isn’t something Lee is willing to present in the same way. In his films, black trauma is to be understood and felt, but it’s not to be used to conjure visceral, yet fleeting thrills. Nor is it used to excite like oppression porn. And thus, Lee’s work doesn’t seem to get celebrated in the same way, either.
Following, Singleton’s Best Picture Oscar nomination for Boyz n the Hood, the very next year, Lee was back with what many expected to be his crowning victory, a karmic correction for how he’d been snubbed for Do The Right Thing. In 1992, he premiered his epic story of race in America, his paean to his personal hero, Malcolm X. All of Hollywood thought it would be nominated for Best Picture, half of Hollywood thought it would win.
Almost unbelievably, on the day the L.A. Riots started, Lee sat in a movie theater in Los Angeles and he watched his Malcolm X. As Lee recalls the moment, “That was surreal. Imagine, the first time the two co-heads of Warner Bros see Malcolm X, and it’s the day of the L.A. Riots. To their credit, even as Los Angeles was burning down, they stayed to the end.” He also recalls that during the screening, the head executives’ assistants were rushing in to the theater with notes asking if they should charter a helicopter to escape L.A. and the flaming lawless chaos outside the gates of the studio.
The nation had arrived at yet another explosive moment in the culture. And this time, Lee had focused on the life of Malcolm X, and used the icon’s life to show America how we’d all arrived at that particular moment.
In the 1990s after N.W.A. blew-up on the charts and everyone knew where Compton was, after Boyz n the Hood, and after its lesser clones like Menace II Society, L.A. was considered the home of angry black men. Yet, Lee stayed ahead of the curve. Three years earlier, critics worried Lee would low key start a race war. Now, their fears had partially come to pass. Black people were in the streets of a major city, rioting. People were dying, businesses were burning. And Lee was in town when the spark was lit.
This time, though, the critics celebrated his “angry film.” In the New York Times, a film critic wrote: “Mr. Lee means for Malcolm X to be an epic, and it is in its concerns and its physical scope. In Denzel Washington it also has a fine actor who does for Malcolm X what Ben Kingsley did for Gandhi.” In the Washington Post, their film critic used many of the same comparisons, especially to Gandhi, which had been named Best Picture a decade earlier. Most expected the same treatment for Malcolm X: “The much-hyped Malcolm X happens to be a spiritually enriching testament to the human capacity for change — and surely Spike Lee’s most universally appealing film.”
After the Rodney King beating, trial and the subsequent L.A. Riots, critics could now see that Lee was identifying problems, discussing them in-depth, just as great art is supposed to do. He wasn’t recklessly stoking black rage, as some had feared. He was using it to light his artwork.
The most meaningful and glowing praise of Lee’s Malcolm X came once again from Ebert. The cinematic bard of Chicago wrote about Lee’s astonishing social commentary, and he seized upon the film’s underlying value as medicine for a very ill America:
“Spike Lee is not only one of the best filmmakers in America, but one of the most crucially important, because his films address the central subject of race. He doesn’t use sentimentality or political cliches, but shows how his characters live, and why. […] Empathy has been in short supply in our nation recently. Our leaders are quick to congratulate us on our own feelings, slow to ask us to wonder how others feel. But maybe times are changing. Every Lee film is an exercise in empathy. He is not interested in congratulating the black people in his audience, or condemning the white ones. He puts human beings on the screen, and asks his audience to walk a little while in their shoes.”
The fact the Academy completely dismissed Malcolm X, inarguably one of the most timely and important pieces of artwork not just of that year, but of that era, is an indictment of the Academy’s social bias. Plus, they even slighted Washington’s mesmerizing performance as the spiritual leader by denying him an Oscar.
Instead, the Best Picture winner that year was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, in which Morgan Freeman, much like he did in Driving Miss Daisy, played a subordinate role to an aging white person whose emotionally troubled story he helped clarify and provide an urgency to connect. It’s a powerful film, but not so powerful to completely shut out Malcom X. Yet once again, America wasn’t ready to see itself, at least not through Spike Lee’s eyes.
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In the years and decades since Lee’s first Oscar nomination, he’s been followed by a vanguard of black filmmakers, ones who have been awarded by the Academy. They’re also part of his legacy.
The first was Lee Daniels. In 2009, 18 years after Boyz n the Hood, the Academy nominated Precious for Best Picture. It lost out to The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who was, incidentally, the first woman to win Best Picture.
Four years later, British director Steve McQueen was spangled in Academy nominations, garnering nine for his film 12 Years A Slave. His depiction of slavery would go on to win Best Picture, although McQueen lost out on Best Director. (Black trauma always wins more awards than black militancy.)
In 2016, another young black filmmaker stood on the stage of the Academy and was awarded for Best Picture. After an initial mix-up, Barry Jenkins and his film Moonlight were announced as the winner over La La Land. (Jenkins also won for Best Adapted Screenplay; however, he didn’t win the Best Director award.)
The next year, Jordan Peele shook up the world with his film Get Out. He was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Just like Jenkins before him, Peele won for screenplay and lost in the Best Director contest.
Now this year, it’s Lee’s turn to return to the Academy as a nominated filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman was nominated for the trifecta — Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Will history be made or will it repeat itself?
Lee’s latest film arrives in an America that’s Post-Ferguson, post-Barack Obama and presently mired in full awareness of its systemic racism. And so, in many ways, this makes it feel worse than it did in 1989. But that’s only because now, people can no longer deny the problem. It’s recorded on cellphones, the videos go viral, the nation looks a lot like the way Lee has shown it to be: angry and racist.
In the film itself, Lee takes an interesting new angle — this time the hero is a black cop in a white town, a man who’s putting his life on the line to save America from its long, ugly, under-examined history and the violent results of the nation’s ignorance. It’s critical. It’s satirical. It’s affecting. And Lee ends it with footage of Heather Heyer being murdered in Charlottesville. Maybe more important than the film, though, is that no one in the media these days thinks Spike Lee is the problem. We all see what’s he been trying for decades to get our nation to bear witness.
If the Academy chooses to celebrate him this year, if he becomes the first black person to win Best Director in Oscar history, it will mark the passage of real racial progress in America. Because to continue to ignore his work, to snub him, to dismiss him as angry, shows how much further we have to go.