Spike Lee: One Award Short

Monday, February 25, 2019

I went to Maureen Owen’s and Barbara Henning’s reading at Beyond Baroque yesterday, and was disappointed that only four people showed up to hear them. One of them was Harryette Mullen, whose collection of tanks, “URBAN TUMBLEWEED,” I reviewed on Thursday, August 11, 2016. Another person who showed up was one of my MFA students.

Giving a reading in Los Angeles at the same time that the Academy Awards is taking place is not exactly the best possible timing. A half-century ago, very few poets were involved in “The Industry,” nor did their friendships extend into that milieu. As we grow near the third decade of this century, the majority of poets in Los Angeles consider at least one person involved with corporate culture to be part of their circle of friends. For many poets in Los Angeles, it was no doubt a pleasure to see one of their own — Viggo Mortensen — who had stepped up and greatly assisted Beyond Baroque with its 50th anniversary celebration three months ago — being singled out as an actor nominated as Best Actor and singled out by the winners of Best Picture as a person who was extraordinarily responsible for the success of the film.

The disappointment of Spike Lee’s fans — not to mention the director himself — at failing to see his film win the Best Picture award will not be consoled by certain facts: as the envelope with the name of the winning film was about to be opened, the odds were significantly against “BlacKkKlansman” winning Best Picture. If you had been willing to bet a thousand dollars on the winner at that instant, you would have been foolish to bet on Lee’s film. Betters — successful bettors, that is — learn to put emotion aside. In the award tabulation leading up to the Best Picture announcement, all one had to do is keep in mind how many Oscars “BlacKkKlansman” had won: one. The reality is that in the past ten years, only one film has ever won just one Oscar, and ended up winning Best Picture (“Spotlight”).

Films that win the Best Picture award set themselves up for that triumph by having more than one aspect of its production recognized as superior to all other films. Best Director, Best Cinematographer, Best Actor or Actress, Best Supporting Actor or Actress. If a film does not win at least one of those categories, in addition to one other category (such as Best Original Screenplay, or Best Adapted Screenplay), then it is highly unlikely that that film is going to win Best Picture.

“Roma,” for instance won Best Director and Best Cinematographer. With those awards in mind, is it any surprise at all that it won Best Foreign Language Film? Of course not.

If one had had a thousand dollars to bet in the half-minute leading up to Best Picture announcement last night, one would have been smart to bet on either “Roma” or “Green Book.” “Green Book” had also won a pair of Oscars (Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor), and so the historical trend would favor one of those two films. The historical trend is also that no film that wins Best Foreign Film also wins Best Picture. So… betting with your brains, instead of your emotions, the likelihood is that “Green Book” would be the winner. And your thousand bucks is remunerated handsomely!

One reporter for the Los Angeles Times called “Green Book” the worst film to win Best Picture in the past ten years. The problem with decrying the portrayal of race relations in “Green Book” and conflating that critique with an institutional award is ignoring one basic fact: Spike Lee’s film was not acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Pictures as the best directed, nor did it feature the best actor or actress, nor the best supporting actor or actress; nor did deserve the award — according to the Academy — for the best scenery, or costumes, or sound score, or editing.

If it had won in just one additional category, then it would have been much more likely to have won Best Picture. I have a suggestion for Mr. Lee, and it is a book that could enable him to win not only the Best Adapted Screenplay award, but prove to be a vehicle that will elicit statuettes for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and — of course, with the odds favoring a multi-award winner — Best Picture.

Tomorrow, I will open the envelope and name that book. If anyone who reads my blog knows Mr. Lee, please pass on my suggestion tomorrow. I would really like to see him win an armful of Oscars.