Friday, January 4, 2019

AWARDS SEASON 2019: The 91st Annual Academy Awards
The Case For Spike Lee As Best Director

Spike Lee. Drew Gurian


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 4, 2019

Okay, yes -- the Oscar nominations for the 2018 film year have not yet been announced.  When January 22 arrives however, expect Spike Lee's name to be read out in the Best Director category (and the adapted screenplay group) of Academy Award nominees.

Last summer the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix-winning "BlacKkKlansman", Mr. Lee's latest film, received high critical acclaim and praise from audiences around the globe, and in some quarters (including this writer) there is a real likelihood Mr. Lee will be in the Academy's winners' circle on February 24.  If so, Mr. Lee would be the only Black director to have won the coveted Best Director Oscar in The Academy's ninety-one years of Oscars.  Most recently both Steve McQueen ("12 Years A Slave") and Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight") have been nominated for the same prize but lost out.  During the same time four of the last five Best Director Oscar winners have come from Mexico (Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu twice, Alfonso Cuaron.)

The sentiment is there in numerous quarters (and likely among some Academy members) for Mr. Lee as a director who enjoys almost 35 years of directing feature length films and documentaries, beginning with "She's Gotta Have It" (now a new generation edition series on Netflix.)  The Brooklynite's resume is illustrious and diverse.  "Do The Right Thing", "Jungle Fever", "Malcolm X", "Clockers", "Crooklyn", "Girl 6", "Get On The Bus", "4 Little Girls", "He Got Game", "Summer Of Sam", "25th Hour", "Inside Man", "Passing Strange", "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus", "Oldboy" and "Chi-Raq" are just a few of the director's varied and eclectic titles, some of which film fans may not be aware of.  The Academy overlooked Mr. Lee on directing efforts for "Do The Right Thing" and "Malcolm X", both of which otherwise received two Oscar nominations.

Mr. Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015 by the Academy, to add to the Student Academy Award he received in 1983 for his short film "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads".

Whatever the cinematic past has brought Mr. Lee, he will surely be looking squarely at Mr. Cuaron ("Roma") as his most difficult Best Director competition on Oscar night.  What perhaps gives Mr. Lee a leg up is not only the excellence of "BlacKkKlansman", well-directed in its own right, but also the breadth of his body of work over four different decades.  Also helping Mr. Lee is Mr. Cuaron's previous win for Best Director ("Gravity") in 2014.  This win however, preceded Mr. Cuaron's fellow countryman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's consecutive-year wins for "Birdman" (in 2015) and "The Revenant" (2016), thereby not necessarily ruling out Mr. Cuaron winning Best Director again.

Still, the challenge for Mr. Cuaron is for his universally acclaimed "Roma" not to get in its own way at the Oscars.  Along with a certain Best Director nomination "Roma" is also likely to be nominated for Best Cinematography (by Mr. Cuaron himself), Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.  Should Mr. Cuaron win the cinematography Oscar (which he is expected to) he may not necessarily win Best Director.  More likely is "Roma" also winning Best Foreign Language Film.

If you taught a Martian about America and its history "BlacKkKlansman" would be the lesson.  Directing is about vision, and Mr. Lee's film has a clear and jagged roadmap of articulation: hate, lies, truth, facts and history combine as an instructive narrative tutorial. 

"BlacKkKlansman" would tell any Martian that America and the entire planet has been in dire straits with racial hatred from Year Dot.  The film's title illustrates the messy, violent, melting cauldron of race, systemic racism and identity that has disrupted and tortured the United States.  The film's story underlines the "truth is stranger than fiction" axiom.  "BlacKkKlansman" reads as a stark, penetrating book about America, an underbelly of the American Dream that when amplified by Mr. Lee for two hours and fourteen minutes is an American Nightmare -- the same one Malcolm X warned of and is reprised in the opening credits of Mr. Lee's "Malcolm X".

Also clear is that Mr. Lee directs some fine performances out of his cast, more great performances than in any other film in 2018.  Ashlie Atkinson, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Robert John Burke, Adam Driver, Ryan Eggold, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Paul Walter Hauser, Corey Hawkins, Jesper Paakonen and John David Washington.  The powerful film is entertaining and humorous as it is harrowing and urgent. 

Never has Mr. Lee engineered such a tightly-coiled and cohesive film, and from start to finish.  The best film of 2018, "BlacKkKlansman" is a slow-burning fuse of percolations, phrases, slogans and language that has been part and parcel of the 242-year existence of the United States of America.  The film is riveting discourse and with Mr. Belafonte on hand takes on extra significance.  Where Mr. Lee ends the film informs the very first frame, that of Scarlet O'Hara traipsing through the detritus of bodies during the Battle Of Atlanta.

In essence the Battle Of Atlanta is still the Battle Of America, especially with the present White House occupant wanting to take America back to the 1950s and further back than that.  Mr. Lee's message in "BlacKkKlansman" is very clear, and he uses teachers both reliable and unreliable in their veracity to deliver his message.  Through his direction and themes he forces viewers to think about what they hear and the language delivered to convey what exactly America represents through people claiming to love the country. 

John David Washington and Laura Harrier in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman". Focus Features

Mr. Lee's utilization of cinematic culture and image power galvanizes "BlacKkKlansman" and it is that directing choice that keeps the film vivid and eyecatching all the way through.  He shows that the very same cinematic vehicles hailed as "masterpieces" by some white male film critics are facilitators of recruitment of the KKK, furthering the engines of death for so many Black people in the U.S.

The Academy itself has had its own racial turmoil over its 91 year-history with its appalling paucity of Black winners.  Only one Black person (Halle Berry) has won Best Actress.  No Black woman has ever been nominated for Best Director.  Julie Dash ("Daughters Of The Dust"), Euzhan Palcy ("Sugar Cane Alley"), Ava DuVernay ("Middle Of Nowhere", "Selma") and Dee Rees ("Mudbound") arguably should all have won directing Oscars, let alone been nominated.

The Academy, itself slowly becoming a more inclusive body (of well over 6,000 members) may feel that these wrongs (in the Best Director category at least) need to be put right now -- or at least herald the beginning of a much-needed corrective -- by awarding Mr. Lee Best Director for "BlacKkKlansman".  Such an honor would be a milestone, and as the first to be won by a Black person it would go to a director who has influenced generations of Black filmmakers and filmmakers the world over.  Two of Mr. Lee's biggest supporters would be fellow directors Francis Ford Coppola and Mr. Lee's close friend Martin Scorsese, whom the director has known for many years.

Honoring Mr. Lee in these divided times we live in for "BlacKkKlansman" (which by the way, has a decent chance at Best Picture) would be The Academy's way of sending a broader message to the current White House as well as the country.  The only films directed by Black directors to win Best Picture have been "12 Years A Slave" and "Moonlight".

Looking at the other likely Best Director nominees aside from Mr. Lee and Mr. Cuaron -- Bradley Cooper ("A Star Is Born"), well-liked by the Academy, will have further chances to win in this category in the future.  His likely nomination for Best Actor for the same film may work against him.  Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Favourite") may not be The Academy's taste, and the scabrous and satirical take on Queen Anne seems counter to what they have historically honored for the most part. 

Ryan Coogler ("Black Panther"), Barry Jenkins ("If Beale Street Could Talk") and Adam McKay ("Vice") will have other opportunities in the Best Director category.  Four of these last five discussed filmmakers are relatively new directors except Mr. McKay.  Potentially Debra Granik ("Leave No Trace") and Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") may make the final five -- and like their aforementioned male counterparts if they do they will face tough fellow contenders.

Of all the directors mentioned as Oscar contenders this year Mr. Lee is the most senior, and the sentiment is with him among some to receive the Directing Oscar if not more.  Mr. Lee has spoken unreservedly about the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a number of years, particularly at Cannes last year during a press conference for his film.  Mr. Lee has become one of the greatest American storytellers on film, and when The Academy says yes to Mr. Lee on February 22 they will be welcoming an iconic, signature filmmaker into their winner's circle.

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