Sunday night was a night of epic highs and lows for director Spike Lee.
After over 30 years as one of the film industry’s most recognizable names and faces, Lee won his first competitive Oscar. He won not for directing but for his work on the screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. Lee also directed the film, and it was nominated for Best Picture.
As he ascended the stage to receive his long-awaited prize, he leaped exuberantly into the waiting arms of Samuel L. Jackson. It might have been “the” acceptance of the night had it not been for what came next.
When the Oscar for Best Picture was announced, and Green Book was declared the winner, Lee stormed from his seat in the audience and attempted to exit the auditorium.
His anger was far more complex than sour grapes over losing out to another film. The recognition of Green Book said something important to Lee about how the industry and the world see black people, and it angered him, so he had to take a stand.
It takes a lot of moxie to stand up to Hollywood on its biggest night, and Lee has it. Here’s how:
People with moxie aren’t always appreciated.
Sunday wasn’t the first time Lee’s work went unrecognized, while other pictures with significant racial themes gained plaudits.
Thirty years ago, Lee’s film Do The Right Thing was nominated for an Oscar, but not for Best Picture, an oversight that stirred no small amount of controversy at the time. Many thought the groundbreaking film should have been nominated.
Instead, Driving Miss Daisy, a story about a wealthy white woman and her black chauffeur in the segregated South, was nominated and won. The film was well-received by audiences and remains a favorite, but it doesn’t sit well with many because it views themes around race primarily through a white lens.
Fast forward to last Sunday. Lee’s BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of a black police detective who manages to infiltrate the KKK. It’s a powerful, timely, challenging story and rings true for many critics and culture observers.
Green Book, on the other hand, is an audience favorite. It features the story of a white chauffeur driving a celebrated pianist Don Shirley, who was black, around the segregated South. Based on actual people and events, the story is told primarily from the chauffeur’s point of view.
For some critics, Green Book is another film presenting race through a white lens.
Lee is one of those critics, and to have a second film overlooked in favor of films that – in his opinion – are less worthy is challenging to swallow.
“I’m snakebit. I mean, every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” he said in a press conference after the awards show. “But they changed the seating arrangement.”
In other contexts, Lee has said, “I think black people have to be in control of their image because the film is a powerful medium. We can’t just sit back and let other people define our existence.”
It takes moxie to speak up for millions of people who have been robbed of their voices, and Lee has it.
People with moxie aren’t afraid to use their voices.
Lee has used his considerable skill as a storyteller to tell stories from an African-American point of view. He said: “It comes down to this: black people were stripped of our identities when we were brought here, and it’s been a quest since then to define who we are.”
But he’s also used his voice and influence to wade into controversies. He’s made pointed – some would say inflammatory and outrageous – comments about the late actor and National Rifle Association advocate Charlton Heston, the government response to Hurricane Katrina, and George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. His pugnacious stances have drawn criticism from politicians and others. While Lee has apologized, he’s also offered insights into how living as a black man in America has shaped his point of view.
If you can get past the initial shock value of some of Lee’s comments, it’s possible to appreciate where he is coming from. It takes moxie to disrupt public discourse, and Lee has it.
People with moxie appreciate those who made way for their success.
Backstage at the Oscars, Trevor Noah caught a glimpse of Lee hastily scribbling notes on a notepad. It was his acceptance speech, just in case he needed it.
He did. The brief speech acknowledged 400 years of slavery in America and noted that February is Black History Month.
“Before the world tonight, I praise my ancestors who built our country, along with the genocide of our native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom; we’ll regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment,” he said.
Lee also honored his grandmother, the daughter of a slave, who graduated from Spellman College and made sure he went to college, too.
It takes moxie to recognize that you are not self-made. No one truly is. Whether it’s a loving, hard-working grandmother saving up to fund her grandson’s college tuition or a long-ago ancestor whose survival was an act of triumph in and of itself, everyone stands on the shoulders of those who have come before.
If I had a chance to interview Spike Lee, what would you want me to ask him?