MARCH 20, 1957
Award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee was born on this date in Atlanta. His first film, She’s Gotta Have It, with a budget of only $175,000, helped pioneer the independent film movement of the 1980s and changed how Black characters were depicted in film.
The film that cemented his reputation as a premier filmmaker, Do the Right Thing, took a searing look at racism in America through a hot summer day in Brooklyn. Movie critics Ebert & Siskel picked it as the best film of the year, but the Academy Awards failed to even nominate the movie for Best Picture, giving the award instead to Driving Miss Daisy.
Ebert described Lee’s Malcolm X as “one of the great screen biographies” and called it the best film of 1992. Denzel Washington, who portrayed the civil rights leader, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but lost to Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), drawing Lee’s ire.
His 1997 documentary about the KKK’s 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls received an Oscar nomination, but again didn’t win. In 2015, he received an honorary Academy Award for his work, and the Library of Congress selected several of his films for preservation in the National Film Registry.
In 2019, he finally won an Academy Award, albeit for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKKlansman.
“I think it’s very important that films make people look at what’s forgotten,” he said. He won an Emmy and Peabody for his documentary on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, and later received the prestigious Gish Award: “We honor Spike Lee for his brilliance and unwavering courage in using film to challenge conventional thinking, and for the passion for justice he feels in his soul.”