NEW YORK — Spike Lee watched the Oscar nominations Tuesday morning on television from his bed, with his wife, Tonya, his two grown children, Satchel and Jackson, and their dog, Ginger.
Lee landed his first directing Academy Award nomination for BlacKkKlansman, his comic and furious send-up of white supremacism. The film, about a black detective (John David Washington) who leads an undercover investigation of the Klu Klux Klan, won six nominations altogether, including best picture and best adapted screenplay, a nod Lee shared with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott.
But the most long-in-coming nomination was Lee’s first nod for best director, something many thought should have happened numerous times before, starting with 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Lee was nominated then for best screenplay for that film, but the lack of more Oscar attention for Do the Right Thing was lamented even then by Oscar presenter Kim Basinger .
“Thirty years is a long time, ain’t it?” Lee said Tuesday by phone from the Brooklyn office of his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, before letting out a lengthy cackle.
In that time, the 61-year-old Lee hasn’t escaped the notice of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. His 4 Little Girls was nominated for best documentary in 1998 and he was given an honorary Oscar in 2016 when he rebuked Hollywood’s diversity record, saying: “It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio. Honest.”
But that Lee, the filmmaker of Malcolm X, 25th Hour and When the Levees Broke, has never won a competitive Oscar strikes many as a plain injustice. Now, Lee may have the best shot of his career in BlacKkKlansman.
He likes his odds.
“BlacKkKlansman is the dark horse — pun intended,” said Lee with another laugh. “You know what? That’s fitting. I’ve always been an underdog, from the very beginning, from film school. That narrative has not changed. And I like that position.”
Lee regretted the oversight of his lead actor, John David Washington, whom he called on Tuesday to console. Lee told Washington, whose father Denzel has been a mainstay in Lee’s films, that there are awards in his future. “Young blood, you’ll be here,” Lee vowed.
Adam Driver, who plays Washington’s partner in the film, was nominated for best supporting actor. BlacKkKlansman composer Terence Blanchard was also nominated for best score, the jazz musician’s first nomination after a career scoring most of Lee’s films since 1991’s Jungle Fever.
Lee becomes the sixth black filmmaker nominated for best director. The last was Jordan Peele, who produced BlacKkKlansman and sent Lee the script, based on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. Lee and Willmott then gave the tale a searing coda, connecting the 1970s-set film with last year’s violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
No black filmmaker has ever won best director.
“One day, one of us has got to break through,” said Lee.
Lee planned to celebrate with a get-together in Fort Lee, Brooklyn, Tuesday evening. But his thoughts were also on the timely subject of his film, one he traces directly to President Donald Trump. After the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Lee lambasted Trump for his response to Charlottesville. Lee released the film in August on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville.
“This film speaks directly to the Looney Tunes world we live in. It speaks directly to why the government is shut down, why 800,000 people are in desperation not knowing where their next check is going to come from. It speaks to everything this guy has brought to the world since he’s occupied the White House,” said Lee. “People get it right away.”