It would be too easy to declare the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did the right thing this week by tapping filmmaker Spike Lee for an honorary Oscar.
Like the best of Lee's movies, which are propelled by though-provoking ambiguity, the award's significance doesn't fall into a simple good or bad category.
Sure, the honor marks long-overdue recognition for one of the strongest filmmakers of the last three decades. But Lee's belated Oscar also underscores Hollywood's failure to do the right thing at the right time – especially in rewarding major talents who don't fit familiar molds.
One unfortunate drawback of the honorary award is that it's handed out at the untelevised Governors Awards ceremony in November – meaning whatever in-person message the outspoken Lee delivers to Oscar voters months after the vexing nomination snubs for "Selma" director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo won't draw the worldwide audience of the February Academy Awards broadcast.
Much of the Hollywood establishment never knew what to make of Lee, beginning with his sexually charged 1986 indie splash, "She's Gotta Have It." His (so far) masterpiece "Do the Right Thing," the tale of a racially roiled Brooklyn, spoke to its times (1989) and resonates today amid the current Black Lives Matter movement. But the Academy largely overlooked the powerful film (save for a screenplay nomination for Lee and a supporting actor nod for Danny Aiello) in a year that "Driving Miss Daisy," a very different movie about race, won Best Picture.
Lee went onto produce more high-quality movies, among them "Jungle Fever," and "Malcolm X," which at least earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor nomination.
The filmmaker follows an eclectic muse, serving up everything from comedies (“Girl 6”) to musicals (“School Daze”) to searing documentaries tackling Hurricane Katrina (“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”) and the 1963 Birmingham church bombing (“4 Little Girls,” which earned him the second of his two Oscar nominations, this one for Best Documentary Feature). Even some of Lee’s smaller films (the bittersweet "Crooklyn") and semi-misfires ("Bamboozled") proved compelling to varying degrees.
His catalog also contains sadly underrated triumphs, like the late 1977-set New York tale "Summer of Sam" and the gritty crime drama "Clockers." The worst (and best) thing you could say about "Clockers" is that it played less like a Spike Lee Joint than a flick directed by Martin Scorsese, another great New York filmmaker mistreated by the Oscars.
Scorsese didn’t notch a Best Director statuette until 2007, when he won for “The Departed,” three decades after “Taxi Driver.” Scorsese was 64 when he got to hold his first Oscar. Paul Newman was 62 when he won a Best Actor trophy for the Scorsese-directed “The Color of Money” in 1987, a year after getting an honorary Oscar and three decades after his first nomination.
Lee, at age 58, is a youngster compared to this year's other octogenarian honorary Oscar winners: proto-indie film queen Gena Rowlands and 1950s-1960s cinematic sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. There's still time for Lee to produce a new masterpiece, and force the Academy to do the right thing, on his terms and on its biggest stage.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.