It was just as I’d lost interest in the latter half of the trailer for The Soloist, which appears to be as blatant and facile a piece of Oscar bait as you’re likely to see this year, when I read Spike Lee’s latest statements about his Oscar chances. He’s not optimistic about the odds for Miracle at St. Anna, due in part to his silly feud with Clint Eastwood that went down earlier this year.

“My wife Tonya told me I may have hurt my chances with the Clint Eastwood stuff… They (Oscar voters and Academy bosses) take everything into account with me. They take into account that I like the Knicks or that I’m in New York.”

I wish that weren’t true, but I suspect that Tonya might be right. Spike is the perennial outsider, and his chances of a nomination on the back of his strongest work are always shaky at best. By most accounts (I have yet to see it for myself) Miracle isn’t his strongest work, even if it might hit notes that parallel obvious awards ploys like The Soloist.

It’s his further comments that struck a chord with me. With respect to the fact that Do the Right Thing received only an Original Screenplay nod while Driving Miss Daisey took home Best Picture in 1990, Lee says, “Nobody is watching motherfucking Driving Miss Daisy today. Do The Right Thing is being taught in classes at major universities and high schools all over the world. That’s how you’re supposed to test art. Does the work stand up?”

I understand that a gold statue might be the last piece of legitimization by way of acceptance that Lee has sought throughout his career — though I doubt he’d be satisfied even then — but I’d give quite a lot for Spike to be able to see that he’s already won.

Because, while being typically self-aggrandizing, he’s right. Driving Miss Daisy may be a fine movie, but as a piece of culture it’s a footnote. It exists more to provide a structure for jokes and to pad the resume of Atlanta residents who own the film’s mansions than it does to speak truth to culture.  

Meanwhile, Do the Right Thing is an undeniable artistic success, an enduring and important piece of work that captures and articulates a point in time with a power and clarity that filmmakers would kill for. The work does stand up, and as we know all too well Oscars fail that test at least as often as they pass.

I’m not certain that Spike Lee could make an Atonement or The Soloist if he tried. (If my perspective here isn’t clear, read that statement with positive spin.) And while Miracle at St. Anna may or may not fire on all cylinders I can confidently say that I’d rather see that, or even another Inside Man, than a Spike Lee Joint made to be an open hand for Oscar. Before asking why he’d have to tailor a film specifically to win, look at the last twenty years of best picture winners. How many share significant characteristics with his films? Very few; ironically the most Lee-like movie in the bunch might be Crash, which seems almost cynically constructed as the antithesis of what his best films are able to achieve.  

Spike Lee has long been an inextricable part of the American cultural vocabulary. I can’t tell him to stop kicking against the pricks, but I can hope that he’ll see that his fight for Hollywood prestige isn’t his only one, or even his best battle by a long shot.

Miracle at St. Anna is at festivals now and opens on September 26. Read Devin’s review.

The Soloist opens on November 21. The trailer is embedded below.