Spike Lee strives to be on the right side of history
Posted February 13, 2019 12:01 a.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2019 4:18 p.m. EST
CNN — Spike Lee's late grandmother, Zimmie Reatha Shelton, was an art teacher for 50 years in the state of Georgia.
Because of Jim Crow laws, Shelton never taught any white students and it's something that Lee laments to this day because "white students missed out on a great art teacher."
Lee, himself a tenured professor and artistic director of the NYU's graduate film program, credits his grandmother for his own education -- her social security checks paid Lee's way through Morehouse College and film school -- and inspiring his passion for it.
"If you did a survey of successful people, no matter what the field, without delay, they could name you the teacher that turned their life around, the teacher that made a great impact on their life," he says. "That's how important education is."
For Lee, it was his professor, Dr. Herb Eichelberger, who played a significant part in shaping his future as a filmmaker.
In summer 1977, Lee's friend gave him a Super 8 camera that he used to document what he remembers, like others do, as "the craziest summer."
Unemployment was high, the city was in a financial crisis, a serial killer then only known as the Son of Sam was on a spree, and there was an infamous blackout during which the city erupted into chaos.
Lee recorded it all and then some.
After returning to school, Eichelberger encouraged him to do something with the footage. Born was a filmmaker who for more than 30 years has entertained, educated, predicted, informed, and illuminated the world through his work.
His latest, "The BlacKkKlansman," earned Lee six Oscar nominations, including his first for directing and best picture. (Only six black directors have been Oscar-nominated for directing and none have won.)
The movie tells the story of a black detective who, in addition to breaking down boundaries at his Colorado police department, infiltrates the KKK.
Not since 1998, when his documentary feature "4 Little Girls" was nominated, has one of Lee's films been in the running for an Oscar. (He won an honorary award in 2016.)
"Do the Right Thing," which this year will celebrate its 30th anniversary, was Lee's first Oscar-nominated film but not for best picture, an oversight that earned the Academy criticism at the time. That year, "Driving Miss Daisy" won best picture.
There is concern from those who see Lee's accolades as overdue that this year might produce similarly disappointing results, but Lee is somewhat zen about it, at least outwardly.
"It's out of my hands, you know?" he says. "I'm telling people now, win or lose, 'BlacKkKlansman' will be on the right side of history."
A principle, one wonders, if the Academy will prove it has now learned.