Will the Oscar go to...?

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Street smart: Lee’s films are not pedantic, and his protagonists are rarely flawless heroes   -  REUTERS/ MARIO ANZUONI

There is a lot of hope riding on Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, which has received six Oscar nominations this year

Quite like the Nobel Prize for Peace or Literature, the list of those who haven’t made it to the elite club of winners rivals the equally prestigious group of men and women in cinema who have been bypassed by the Oscars.

That is why the nomination of Spike Lee for an Academy Award this year is being hailed by the director’s legion of fans across the world. Lee, they hold, has to go home with a statuette of Uncle Oscar this year.


It’s high time, for he has been around for 40 years, with an average of one film a year. He is the director of Chi-Raq, a film on gang violence in Chicago, and of Malcolm X, on the iconic black rights activist. The cult film Do The Right Thing is his baby as well. Lee’s films have always taken up black rights, but from different perspectives such as colour, feminism and gentrification.

Yet, he won his first nomination for the Best Director award only this year. There is a lot of hope riding on Blackkklansman, which has received six Oscar nominations, including that for the Best Picture. The film is based on the real-life story of a black Colorado cop who manages to join the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, by assuming the identity of a white person on the phone.

While Lee has tweaked the plot here and there for dramatic effect — which has been criticised in some quarters — the film is being viewed as a metaphor for America’s politics in the Trump era.

Hate, xenophobia, killings of black people and racist cops all find a place in this inordinately funny film. While you have Black Panthers chanting “black power”, the film cuts to the Klan mouthing “white power” in another secret meeting, a clear reference to the real-life copycat slogan “All Lives Matter” that white supremacists came up with in response to the powerful “Black Lives Matter” movement, after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvor Martin in Florida.

Blackklansman is very different from Malcolm X, where the urgency of the black cause reached a feverish pitch. This Lee film is more about perspective than inspiration, underlining hypocrisies that America is riddled with. But it is also heavier on style, and speaks the language of the millennial. Protagonist Ron Stallworth’s exaggerated swagger and hairdo are reminiscent of 2019’s Grammy hit This is America by Childish Gambino, which has a similar satirical style. The R&B 70’s music score, composed by Terrence Blanchard, who has been a Lee faithful since he played the trumpet in School Daze, adds to its style quotient. Incidentally, the movie has also been nominated for its score.

Lee’s jazz roots (his father was a jazz musician) are visible not only in the way he uses music to tell a story but also in his stylised characters, their appearances and costumes, and the sets he chooses. Lee’s father wrote the musical scores for films such as Do The Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. In Do The Right Thing, one of the principal protagonists, Radio Raheem, who travels everywhere with his boombox blaring Fight The Power by Public Enemy, makes a significant statement considering how he ends up in the film (spoiler alert: dead at the hands of a cop). The skirmish at the end of Do The Right Thing with its mixed neighbourhood housing members of the black community, Italians, Koreans and Latin Americans essays the layered problems associated with racism that Lee likes to focus on in his films.

In Blackkklansman, a Jewish decoy (Adam Driver) is sent to the meetings of anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan at great personal risk. In a significant moment in the film, Driver, who’s got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, delivers a significant speech on privilege and racism. “I didn’t grow up Jewish, or feel Jewish or think about it at all, but that’s all I can think about at this point.” The irony of America’s significant cultural influence built by its black community, which still struggles for equal rights notwithstanding its cultural capital, was also spelt out in his earlier films such as Crooklyn, Mo’ Better Blues, Red Hook Summer and Bamboozled.

Lee’s films are not pedantic, and his protagonists are rarely flawless heroes. And that’s where the power of his films lies — they’re off-the-cuff and relatable, irrespective of your colour. While they are political in nature, they never lose their entertainment value: In short, they’re exactly what the Academy looks for when it comes to choosing the best of the year.

So, will Lee make it to the charmed circle this year? On February 24, when the awards are announced, the Oscars may take a turn — or stick to the script.

The director, of course, has been quite vocal about missing the Oscars. When Do The Right Thing lost out to Driving Miss Daisy, Lee was troubled about the fact that it hadn’t even got a nomination. In an interview with GQ magazine, he said, “To be honest, after Do the Right Thing, I said, ‘That’s it.’ You know?...What film won best film of 1989? Driving Miss Daisy. Driving Miss motherf****** Daisy. Who’s watching that film now?”

Published on February 15, 2019
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