Spike Lee had been an Academy Award winner for all of 10 hours before President Donald Trump tried to steal his shine.
“Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, apparently under the misinformed impression Lee had breathed his name during his acceptance speech Sunday night.
But whether he realizes it or not, the president’s pre-dawn cheap-shot is in keeping with a long tradition: White people have imposed weird parochial demands and fumble-fingered misinterpretations on Spike Lee for as long as he’s been making movies.
When “Do the Right Thing” came out in 1989, many white viewers and critics accused Lee of trying to stir up black anger. And this wasn’t just a hobbyhorse for white conservatives, far removed from the racial tensions Lee so effortlessly captured in that masterpiece. David Denby’s alarm-ringing review in The New Yorker was an especially notorious entry in a wave of panicked responses from major writers, convinced that Lee — in his treatment of the film’s climactic scene in which a white cop’s murder of a black man touches off a riot — wanted to foment similar violence. The Independent’s Keith Botsford warned readers that Lee had put “his hatred on celluloid,” grandiosely insinuating that Lee’s movie was nothing but an incitement to anti-whiteness. Lee was famously interrogated by three American reporters at a Cannes Film Festival press conference, all livid that “Do the Right Thing” made no mention of black drug use.
These days, we’ve become trained to expect many of our cultural conversations to cycle from hype to backlash and back again at a breakneck pace, so it’s hard to appreciate the way that the panicky, bad-faith reactions that greeted “Do the Right Thing” actually lingered long after the movie left theaters.
Among the white literati, the smears and willful misreadings of Lee’s masterpiece were revived again and again in their coverage of his subsequent work. The Boston Herald’s Don Feder paused in a 1992 writeup of Lee’s Malcolm X biopic to accuse him of “sentimentaliz[ing] race riots” three years earlier. For most of a decade, Lee was tarred as being bent on inspiring black-on-white crime, if not an outright race war. And as far as today’s digital-age right-wing outlets are concerned, he still is.
By the time Lee took aim at the issues conservative commentators have most fixated upon as evidence of some kind of inherent rot within African-American culture – black fatherhood in 1998’s “He Got Game,” or black street violence in 2015’s “Chi-Raq” – those observers had become so entrenched against the director that they barely seemed to notice.
The disingenuous focus on Lee’s perceived political deficiencies has also undercut a critical appreciation of his contributions to filmmaking. From his use of hyperclose shots of speaking mouths and crowds of listening faces, to that gliding dolly shot he always finds a striking way to deploy, Lee has created a signature style that’s retained its radical chic decades after he first unleashed these inventions. Lee’s mise en scène deserves to be considered alongside universally acknowledged titans – including both the international arthouse greats like Bergmann and Kurosawa, and Lee’s poppier American forebears like Douglas Sirk and Orson Welles.
But even for white critics with a keen understanding of Lee’s artistic merit and filmic innovations, the reactionary environment that came to surround his early work prevented them from grasping the importance of having a black craftsman, helming black stories. In a 1995 interview in The Guardian, Lee was pressed with the suggestion that he’d become so “cocooned” that he rarely made it “outside of that black consciousness.” Might he be missing something essential by insisting that his characters, stories, and settings emphasized blackness?
Lee’s response then is resonant even now: “I think that black life is universal automatically. So when I do a film about a black family, I don’t think I’m in a cocoon,” Lee said. “I’m not doing a film that I think only black people can understand, because I think if a film works on a universal level, then it works.”
“What is amazing to me,” Lee continued, “is that no one’s ever, ever, ever asked Akira Kurosawa: ‘Mr. Kurosawa, why are all your films about Japanese culture?’ No one ever asked Federico Fellini: ‘Mr. Fellini, why are all your films about Italian culture?’ No one ever asked Ingmar Bergman: ‘Why are all your films about Swedish culture?’ But the minute black artists try to express themselves about our culture, then it’s like, ‘You’re not universal. When are you going to do a film that encompasses all of humanity?’ That’s crazy. Insane.”
Lee was similarly clear-eyed about the film industry’s own poo-pooing of black stories. In 1995 — the year before Cuba Gooding Jr. took home a golden statuette for a movie with the same magical-black-friend-teaches-white-guy-to-grow formula that just propelled “Green Book” to the 2019 Best Picture award – Lee told interviewer Finn Halligan that “Hollywood dealers still see me as a black director” who would never show them the money.
If Hollywood accountants are worth their degrees, then Sunday night’s Oscars should forever bury the hoary notion that black scripts can’t make green. “Black Panther” followed up its $1.3 billion global gross by winning three of the seven little gold statues it was nominated for, including a long-overdue Academy Award for veteran costume designer Ruth Carter. Yes, the ability to make money is still probably the most powerful force shaping the attitudes of film industry gatekeepers. Artistic merit takes longer to break through on its own.
Nevertheless, Lee’s win seems to acknowledge that his artistry did break through, conceding at last: You had it right the whole time, Spike, and your detractors got it wrong. Perhaps there was no other way for the Academy to make this concession than to attach their overdue recognition to a movie that’s more a Spike Lee melange than a Spike Lee masterpiece — and one that flatters the white desire to be told that American racism is a simple story of hood-wearing bad guys. It nevertheless felt like an apology for overlooking the crown jewels of Lee’s filmography: “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “25th Hour,” and his Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke.”
It’s not wrong to feel this way. The Academy is famous for being late in praising those filmmakers whose radical ideas have shaped the art form. Pop-pulp auteurs like Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet had to wait for the movie industry elites to catch on to the fact that cultural rules of the 1950s had gone to rot before the Academy tossed them honorary trophies for their service. Agnes Vardá spent six decades making shattering documentaries about life on the margins of global capitalism before she got an Oscars invite in 2018. It’s always easier to celebrate someone after their ideas have lasted long enough in the firmament to at last be considered safe enough for public consumption. In this, Lee has many peers.
Nevertheless, if it’s frustrating to have waited for Lee’s past efforts to win acknowledgement, there is a certain amount of delight to be taken in Lee standing at center stage at a moment when black artistic power seems to be reaching a critical mass across Hollywood.
The aforementioned box-office triumph of “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s Marvel-springboarded Afro-futurist wonderland has shattered the conventional wisdom of Tinseltown bean-counters. Barry Jenkins’ restrained sensuality and monolith-defying treatment of black experiences have earned him award tours for back-to-back masterpieces – and even if voters fell short in getting “If Beale Street Could Talk” what it deserved this season, it proved the 2017 accolades for “Moonlight” weren’t a fluke. And bubbling under that Academy Award pantheon are new radicals, like “Sorry to Bother You” director Boots Riley and multi-platform multi-hyphenate Jordan Peele. Along with established talents like Steve McQueen and Ava Duvernay, there’s a whole new generation of black artists now thriving in the space Lee helped create for them.
Lee’s accomplishment, then, is not just being the filmmaker who built his own tools to dismantle his master’s house. He’s made the world itself larger and more accommodating of black stories. Thanks to Lee, there’s no longer a question as to whether black movies can get made in the first place. And with more such movies getting made, Lee’s successors are tenaciously eroding the false understanding of black lives and culture as monolithic – one key component of the lazy thinking that led Denby and the rest to think they could predict how black folk writ large would respond to “Do the Right Thing.”
There should be no doubt that Spike Lee’s long overdue award mattered – just allow the director’s own ebullient reaction to be your guide. In that moment, Lee had the energy of the young director he once was, giddy with the joy of making movies, for a moment not thinking about all the things he had to fight through to make it in the business.
Suspicious minds and bad-faith actors have long tried to tear Lee down — to deny him his place in the pantheon. Trump’s slapdash attempt to do the same the morning after the Oscars was nothing Lee hadn’t heard a thousand times before. If anything, it was a pale echo of what Lee had already overcome.
Spike Lee has won. And the future – represented by Jenkins, Coogler, Duvernay, McQueen, Riley, and other budding black auteurs – sure looks awful pretty.