Spike Lee’s Oscar Winning Take On Race…
After a distinguished career, Spike Lee finally won his first Oscar for Best Screenplay last year for his powerful script for the film “BlackkKlansman”, the true story of a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan!
This is a powerful movie that is more timely today than ever – and it was also Lee’s first ever nominations for Best Picture and Best Director as well. But for fans of his work, this is just the latest in his examination of race and racism in America…
“Do The Right Thing!”
Spike Lee burst onto the scene in 1989 with a searing look at race relations.
On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone’s hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence.
Here is the trailer:
Lee is part of a terrific cast of characters, who examine the tension between blacks and Italians – an examination that could have been between the black community and any other one in America.
This film was inspired by an actual incident in New York City, where some black youths were chased out of a pizzeria by some white youths in a section of New York City known as Howard Beach.
the film is incendiary in its approach, but balanced as well….Spike Lee wrote the script in just two weeks!
While it’s admirable that a major Hollywood film studio would finance the film, Lee says that original producer Paramount demanded at the last moment that the film’s ending be changes so that the two protagonists, Sal and Mookie should hug. Lee refused, calling it a “Hollywood bullshit ending”, as he wanted the epilogue to remain truthful to the characters.
Ultimately, the film ended up the way Lee wanted it – after taking the project to Universal Studios.
Lee’s script builds methodically to an ending that is unavoidable, and bravo that he was able to win that battle. Even with the critical acclaim, the film was snubbed at the Academy Awards that year.
During the 1990 Oscar ceremony, while announcing the Best Picture nominees, Kim Basinger ignored her scripted text and said:
“We’ve got five great films here, and they’re great for one reason: because they tell the truth. But there is one film missing from this list, that deserves to be on it, because ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all, and that’s Do the Right Thing (1989).”
Spike Lee would later thank her for it in a 2019 episode of the podcast “Unspooled”.
By the way, the film’s title comes from a Malcolm X quotation:
“You’ve got to do the right thing.”
A few years later, Director Spike Lee tackled the true story of that civil rights activist as well:
“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”
Powerful words to a story told with energy, urgency and passion:
Three years after “Do The Right Thing”, Lee was back with the story of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Here is the trailer:
Here is one of his most powerful speeches:
“You are one of the 22 million black people who are the *victims* of America. You and I, we’ve never see any democracy. We didn’t see any… democracy on the-the cotton fields of Georgia, wasn’t no democracy down there. We didn’t see any democracy. We didn’t see any democracy on the streets of Harlem or on the streets of Brooklyn or on the streets of Detroit or Chicago. Ain’t no democracy down there. No, we’ve never seem democracy! All we’ve seen is hypocrisy! We don’t see any American Dream. We’ve experienced only the American Nightmare!”
Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor for his performance – shockingly, he lost to Al Pacino in “Scent Of A Woman.”
This three hour epic covers the key events in Malcolm X’s life: his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage to Betty X, his pilgrimage to Mecca and reevaluation of his views concerning whites, and his assassination on February 21, 1965.
At the film’s ending, when Nelson Mandela addresses a South African classroom, he quotes a Malcolm X speech directly. He refused to repeat the last four words, “by any means necessary”, so Spike Lee inserted black and white footage of Malcolm X saying it himself. The line originated in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “Les Mains Sales” (“Dirty Hands”).
Both of these films are essential viewing, now more than ever. I also shared the story of a film that was part of Hollywood’s revolution in 1967:
Sidney Poitier’s searing portrait of a black Detective in the deep south in the 60’s is a brilliant film – see more about this film here:
Another film told the story of America’s racism in 1970:
“Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” was an incendiary look at racism in America – an ultra low budget masterwork by Director Melvin Van Peebles – here is the trailer and an in-depth look at this powerful film:
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As the issue of racism in America continues, these films tackle the subject in powerful ways that still resonate today – if you enjoy this story, please share on social media!