Thirty years after Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee is finally an Oscar-nominated director. The 61-year-old firebrand filmmaker from Brooklyn also has a film nominated in the best picture category for the first time, all thanks to BlacKkKlansman, the screen adaptation of a memoir by a black Colorado police detective who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee was ebullient Tuesday about the nominations and said he was being inundated by messages from well-wishers and longtime collaborators. Many of those well-wishers mentioned Do the Right Thing, a title that has a wry irony for followers of Oscar history. The film is regarded as a classic but it didn’t make it into the best picture race. The trophy that year went instead to Driving Miss Daisy, a far gentler tale of American race relations.
The déjà vu aspect of Lee’s odyssey is enhanced by the fact that BlacKkKlansman is joined in the best picture race by Green Book — which, like Driving Miss Daisy, is a Deep South period piece about a heartwarming friendship that defies race divides of the era. Does Lee himself view Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman as bookends for his long Oscar odyssey?
“Is Do the Right Thing connected to BlacKkKlansman? Is that the question? I think they do feel connected,” Lee said. “They’re connected if you want to talk specifically about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. We all know what happened with that. Let’s be honest. It was a snub. That’s what it was. But it did not stop that movie from becoming an American classic. That film is in the Library of Congress. It’s taught in classes all over the world. It’s only gotten better every year since it was released.”
“In no way did that snub negate the impact of that film,” Lee added. When it’s suggested that the snub actually drew more attention to the film, however, the filmmaker couldn’t bring himself to agree.
“That could be true in some way but I don’t know,” Lee said. “But to answer your original question: Those two films are connected and they will always be connected. By subject matter, by the filmmaker and by this history.”
In a three-decade career of sustained prominence, Lee has never won an Oscar in a competitive category. He was nominated in 1990 for writing the Do the Right Thing screenplay and in 1998 his 4 Little Girls was nominated as best documentary feature. The auteur behind Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam, She’s Gotta Have It, Inside Job and Crooklyn was also given a special honorary Oscar in 2015 for his contributions to film.
Lee’s latest film will join the list of his most acclaimed works and this time around, the Academy voters are adding to that approving chorus. The film picked up a total of six nominations for the 91st Academy Awards, including one for Adam Driver as best supporting actor. (Do the Right Thing also earned a supporting actor nomination but Danny Aiello lost out to Denzel Washington’s Glory performance.)
Lee said awards are appreciated but never take precedence over creative priorities. He said to approach them in any other way would “give others the power to validate my work” and that’s a compromised place for any artist to be in.
Lee said he was especially pleased that BlacKkKlansman led to nods for two of his longtime collaborators, Terrance Blanchard and Barry Alexander Brown, who got their first Oscar nominations in the score and editing categories, respectively. (Brown had previously been nominated in a documentary category but not for editing.)
Lee said the power of the script and story were the savagely sharp comedic moments that stripped away the power of the Klan on the big screen.”The absurdity of that main premise is intense and from absurdity comes humor and that’s a key component of the film.”
The memory of the Do the Right Thing snub may still stick in the craw of the filmmaker but Lee said he never tilted his plans or choices to seek an award nomination.
“We don’t think like that. We don’t talk like that. It’s not in the conversation. It’s like, ‘Let’s do the best job we can to tell the m—–f——- story.’ That’s what we say. That’s the rule, that’s the mindset. That’s how we operate. And that’s it. Anything after that is a cherry on top.”
The project seized Lee’s attention as soon as he heard the true-life tale of Ron Stallworth, the 1970s cop who successfully worked his way into the Klan as undercover operative. Filmmaker Jordan Peele (Get Out) is the one that explained the tale to Lee and started his journey with the project.
“Brother Jordan Peele called me up on the phone and he told me what has to be the greatest six-word pitch in the history of Hollywood cinema: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ First thing I said was, ‘This must be another David Chappelle bit.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Ron Stallworth exists, he really infiltrated the Klan and there’s a book and a script.’ And for me that was it.”
Lee, the most famous New York Knicks fan alive, said making films for awards is akin to a basketball player who cares more about scoring titles than championships. “You got those guys, ‘I don’t give a f— about winning, I only want to see how many points I can put up on the board.’ Let me tell you, you don’t want that guy on your team.”
Lee circled back to emphasize how grateful he was for the Academy’s affirmation no matter the year it arrived. “I’m happy most that I get another 20 years more to do all this and hopefully it will be a good 20 years. But right now, on this date — what is the date today? Let me look, let me look. Okay, on this date, January 22 in the Year of Our Lord 2019, I’m very happy and lot of people are very happy. People who didn’t even work on this movie are happy about [the nominations]. So it’s a good day in Brooklyn, New York, and, yes, I am thankful for that.”