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The Oscars and Spike Lee: History has always been on his side

The Oscars and Spike Lee: History has always been on his side
Filmmaker Spike Lee, foreground, on the set of his 1989 movie, "Do the Right Thing." (Universal Home Entertainment)

Spike Lee's relationship with the Oscars was defined nearly 25 years ago when the Motion Picture Academy gave its best picture award to "Driving Miss Daisy," a musty, modest movie about the relationship between a cranky Georgia widow and her black chauffeur while largely ignoring Lee's beautiful, uncompromising look at American race relations, "Do the Right Thing."

In the ensuing quarter century, Lee has never softened when asked about the academy's vote that year.

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"They're always going to go with the passive black servant instead of a movie that asks tough questions and offers a perspective they might not be comfortable with," Lee told me in a 2008 interview. "The Oscars' assessment of a movie's quality usually isn't held up by history. That's why they don't matter."

Last year, after Ava DuVernay's powerful civil rights drama "Selma" received only two Oscar nominations, Lee offered a characteristically blunt assessment that included a particular profanity tied to any reference to "Driving Miss Daisy."

"That doesn't diminish the film," he told The Daily Beast, talking about "Selma's" scant showing. "Nobody's talking about ... 'Driving Miss Daisy.' That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like 'Do the Right Thing' is. Nobody's discussing 'Driving Miss ... Daisy.' So if I saw Ava today I'd say, 'You know what? ...  'em. You made a very good film, so feel good about that and start working on the next one.'"

It's likely then that Lee will have a few choice words for academy members in November when he receives an honorary Oscar at this year's Governors Awards dinner in Hollywood. (Gena Rowlands and Debbie Reynolds will also be honored.) The event isn't televised, offering recipients the opportunity to speak at length and from the heart without the fear that an orchestra is  preparing to play them off the stage.

Harry Belafonte gave a profoundly moving speech at last year's dinner, receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Belafonte pointedly condemned Hollywood's treatment of minorities in the past and appealed to the film community to "use their gifts" to "see the better side of who and what we are as a species."

So even though Lee, 58, says that the Oscars "don't matter," you can bet he'll use the stage of the Governors Awards to air a bold take on today's movie industry.

As for his appraisal of the 1990 Oscars, Lee -- nominated that year for original screenplay -- is absolutely correct by just about any measure. In the American Film Institute's 2007 poll of film artists, critics and historians, "Do the Right Thing" placed at No. 96, slightly after "Pulp Fiction" and immediately before "Blade Runner." (I'd argue all three should be ranked much higher.)

"Driving Miss Daisy" didn't make the list.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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