Jeneé Osterheldt

Spike Lee is an icon without an Oscar

Spike Lee has made “Do the Right Thing,” “School Daze” and “Malcolm X,” among many other titles.
Spike Lee has made “Do the Right Thing,” “School Daze” and “Malcolm X,” among many other titles. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision

Editor’s note: This column originally published on Feb. 25, 2012.


On Sunday, Hollywood gathers to celebrate the 84th Annual Academy Awards. It’s all about the best and brightest in film.

Or so the academy would have you believe. I love a good movie just like anyone else, but the Oscars are notorious for getting it wrong and making up for it later. Gary Oldman, who has a fantastic 30-year career, is only just now getting his first nomination.

This is why as filmgoers, it’s important we seek out not just what the academy deems worthy, but also what it overlooks. Like Spike Lee, who has been nominated but has never won the coveted award.

This is the man who made “School Daze,” “Malcolm X,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and one of my favorites, “Crooklyn.” Did you see his captivating and heartbreaking 2006 HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” which took America into post-Katrina New Orleans?

But movies like “The Help” carry favor. I liked the movie. Viola Davis did her thing. But it’s striking to me what the academy will and won’t celebrate.

Let’s rewind to the 62nd Annual Academy Awards 22 years ago, when Kim Basinger so famously pointed out that Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” deserved best picture.

“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 bold story about racial and ethnic intolerance in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

She was right. In 1999, the film was chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. (It also happens to be the movie President Barack Obama took first lady Michelle Obama to on their first date.)

But getting the academy’s cold shoulder is the story of Spike Lee’s 26-year career. Lee doesn’t make movies just to entertain or garner acclaim. He makes movies to make change, to push boundaries and encourage people to stand up and be better.

When I think of movies I’ve seen that tell the stories of African-Americans truthfully and thoughtfully, Lee’s fill my list. His contributions aren’t just important to black history, they are relevant to American history.

He is both a cultural and silver screen legend. And though he may never win an Academy Award, Lee has something most filmmakers don’t: a sneaker in his name.

The Air Jordan Spizike debuted in 2006. The shoes are a mashup of various Air Jordans that Lee helped make famous in the legendary commercials featuring Mars Blackmon, a character from Lee’s first movie, “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Earlier this month, the latest Spizike, the Bordeaux, hit stores. I bought a pair.

These sneakers don’t just represent some of the best features of Michael Jordan’s brand, they celebrate the cultural impact Lee makes. Iconic sports figures are the ones who usually earn sneakers in their names.

But it’s clear, with or without an Oscar, that Lee is an icon.