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Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

Spike Lee, the Oscars, and doing the right thing

Spike Lee (left) leaped into the arms of friend Samuel L. Jackson after winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in "BlacKkKlansman.”Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Invision/AP

Doing the right thing doesn’t come easy at the Oscars.

After 30 years of being snubbed by the Academy Awards, Spike Lee finally got his first best director nomination (he lost), and he lost the top prize to, um, “Green Book.”

A white savior film.

Winning his first Oscar for best adapted screenplay (“BlacKkKlansman”) in the midst of it all was a one step forward, two steps back move — for the Oscars.

As I watched Lee, 61, leap into the arms of his friend and longtime colleague Samuel L. Jackson, my eyes glazed over with happiness.

We rarely see that kind of black brotherhood and unfiltered joy on Hollywood’s biggest night. But there they were, hugging with a love that is made behind the scenes, in the quiet moments.


Lee, often portrayed as the angry black man, was sporting an ear-to-ear grin. And then he did what Lee does so well, and reminded us of our reality:

The word today is “irony.” The date, the 24th. The month, February, which also happens to be the shortest month of the year, which also happens to be Black History Month. The year, 2019. The year, 1619. History. Her story. 1619. 2019. 400 years.

Four hundred years. Our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and bought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night. My grandmother, [inaudible], who lived to be 100 years young, who was a Spelman College graduate even though her mother was a slave. My grandmother who saved 50 years of Social Security checks to put her first grandchild — she called me Spikie-poo — she put me through Morehouse College and [New York University] grad film. NYU!

Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today, along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.


President Trump called that a racist attack in a tweet on Monday. But when it comes to treating black life with dignity, love, and advocacy, Trump can’t touch Lee. Or “Do The Right Thing,” Lee’s 1989 seminal masterpiece.

In a purple Ozwald Boateng suit paying homage to Prince and custom gold Air Jordan 3 “Tinker” kicks (word to Mars Blackmon), Lee was both a showstopper and reminder of the gravitas of the moment.

The iconic filmmaker rocked the “Do the Right Thing” love and hate rings worn by Radio Raheem, a tribute to the late Bill Nunn who played the character and a nod to the movie that should have won, or at least been a contender for, best film 29 years ago.

Kim Basinger, a newcomer at the time, told the Academy audience as much back in 1990.

“There is one film missing from this list that deserves to be on it because it might tell the biggest truth of all,” Basinger said of Lee’s unfortunately timeless masterpiece about racism in America.


“Driving Miss Daisy,” of all films, won that year.

“Do the Right Thing” was the backdrop of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s first date. “Do the Right Thing” (along with “Malcolm X”) is one of “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler’s top 5 most impactful films.

“Do the Right Thing” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999. “Do the Right Thing,” after all these years, resonates. Radio Raheem was killed when police put him in a chokehold. Lee created the scene with the 1983 death of 25-year-old Michael Stewart in mind. When we watch it now, we think of Eric Garner.

That is the beauty and brilliance and bittersweetness of a Spike Lee joint. They are often reflections of the past, present, and future.

I was 9 years old when “Do the Right Thing” came out. By then, me and my cousins were singing songs from “School Daze.” You know, the film that gave Ruth E. Carter — who last night became the first black costume designer to win an Oscar — her big break? “Thank you for my start,” she said to Lee as she stood onstage Sunday night. “I hope this makes you proud.”

In my family, and especially to my mama, Spike Lee was mandatory viewing. For a white woman raised in a small, white, rural town who gave birth to a black daughter in a diverse city, Lee helped give her context.


For a woman working full-time jobs while warring with addiction and depression, he helped her do the work of educating me when she couldn’t educate herself. She took me to see “Jungle Fever” when I was 11 and dropped me off at the movies to see “Malcolm X” the next year. She preferred comedies. But even if she wasn’t comfortable with some of Lee’s films, she felt I needed to see them for myself.

I came to learn I needed to see them because Lee was giving me, and so many other black people, pieces of ourselves. I watch “Crooklyn” as a painkiller to hard days.

His films serve as preservations of black life and American history through the art of film. He gave us Carter, Jackson, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and an endless list of A-listers shifting the needle to ensure our stories are told. And when they tell it, they tell it right.

So on Sunday when “Green Book” won over “BlacKkKlansman” for best picture, it was an upset. And not because Lee’s film needed to win. It could have been “Black Panther,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Favourite,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or “Vice.”

Choosing “Green Book,” described by Globe film critic Ty Burr as “a movie built to flatter white audiences,” sent a message. On the most inclusive night in Oscar history, the Academy still chose to center the stories that leverage black pain for white pleasure.


Like “Driving Miss Daisy,” all over again.

The Academy doesn’t seem to see black folk in the space between Lee and Jackson’s hug — or the four-fingered ring on Lee’s hand that read “LOVE.” Run down the list of black Oscar winners, and you’ll find a lot of the roles and films amplify black suffering.

The awards aren’t about validation. But they are about representation.

To see the top prize go to anything but “Green Book” would have been to see the Oscars do the right thing.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.