Right now, filmmaker Spike Lee is having what they call "a moment."
His latest film, DA FIVE BLOODS, has just been named one of the year's 10 Best Films by the American Film Institute. Additionally, the National Board of Review named his film as the year's very best just yesterday. (So did my critics' group, the Chicago Indie Critics, in a tie with MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM for Best Studio Release.) Lee’s latest drama is sure to be a major contender at this year's Academy Awards too. He even directed the film version of the stage show DAVID BYRNE’S UTOPIA, an awards contender in itself.
Lee is no stranger to awards, accolades, or the Oscars, of course. He’s won too many prizes to count, including an Oscar for the breadth of his career in 2015 and another Academy Award in competition for Best Adapted Screenplay in BLACKKKLANSMAN two years later. (It was shared with his co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott on that film.) There’s one big award he has yet to be honored with, however, and that is the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Here's why he deserves it this year.
At 63, Lee is still quite young to receive such an accolade even though the AFI has often given out the award to those merely in their 60s and even 50s. Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro are just two who received it before hitting 60. Tom Hanks received the award at the mere age of 46 and the AFI took a lot of flak for going that young. The AFI has been criticized for tardiness too. They could have given the award to artists like Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, William Holden, and Sidney Lumet, but that became impossible with their passing. Worthy recipients like Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Robert Redford are still alive, but who knows what the AFI’s plans are for them. Lately, they’ve been giving the Life Achievement Award to those with film careers that started just in the last 30-40 years. Steve Martin and George Clooney were two of them, perhaps signaling that the AFI is turning the page towards a newer generation of artists. If so, Spike Lee should be atop their list.
For starters, Lee’s resume is one of the most impressive in the history of Hollywood. He is a quadruple threat: a director, producer, writer, and actor. According to his IMDB. com page, he has 93 credits as a director with 23 of them being features. Lee also has logged 93 producing credits, 25 writing credits, and dozens of acting credits too. (Let’s not forget his hand in helping Michael Jordan become the Nike icon he is in the commercials Lee directed.)
Most of Lee’s films have been utterly unique too, concentrating quite specifically on the black experience, illuminating the struggle in ways that no filmmaker had done before or since, and certainly not as consistently. Even when Lee takes on a work-for-hire project like INSIDE MAN, he added depth to the cat and mouse thriller through the subtext of Denzel Washington's black detective character investigating a bank robbery in the inner city. Few filmmakers have illuminated so many important issues and made such great entertainments while doing so.
To that point, choosing Lee in the year after George Floyd's death, and the nationwide "Black Lives Matter" protests that followed, would make for shrewd timing for the AFI as well. What better time to award a filmmaker as passionate an activist as Lee, one who now more than ever is encouraging all Americans to “do the right thing”? Additionally, Lee’s two latest films were positively prescient about our nation's current crisis of systemic racism. BLACKKKLANSMAN and DA 5 BLOODS dealt with white supremacy and the MAGA movement, respectively. Lee saw it coming and put it on film.
There are also two tenets of the AFI's criteria for the Life Achievement Award that describe Lee perfectly:
"The recipient must be one who fundamentally advanced the art of film and whose achievements had been acknowledged by the general public as well as by film scholars and critics and the individual's peers…The work of the recipient must also have withstood the test of time."
Other than perhaps Quentin Tarantino, there has been no individual filmmaker in the last 30-40 years who’s been as big an artist, influence, maverick, or even brand. Lee has changed the way all of Hollywood, and indeed the world, views and understands black America with his classic films and documentaries like SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, 4 LITTLE GIRLS, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, INSIDE MAN, THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, BLACKKKLANSMAN, and DA 5 BLOODS.
Spike Lee is a one-of-a-kind artist, activist, and gamechanger. And he's easily got another 20 years of films in him too. His very next title could be the Oscar-winning producer and director of DA 5 BLOODS, but for certain, he should be bestowed with the immediate moniker of the AFI’s next Life Achievement Award recipient.