Spike Lee gets Oscar's cold shoulder again, for his vital, vehement semi-musical about the inner city.

By Joe McGovern
February 04, 2016 at 04:26 PM EST
Parrish Lewis
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Which movie was better: Mean Streets or The Sting? There’s no wrong answer, but here’s something that’s criminal. The Sting, George Roy Hill’s crowd-pleasing reunion with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. (That’s not the criminal part…) Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s gritty crime pic with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, won zero Oscars. It didn’t win any Oscars because it wasn’t even nominated for a single award. Not one.

So you can debate whether The Sting was the best movie of 1973. But you can’t excuse the Academy for completely ignoring Mean Streets. Sadly, Oscar has a long history of overlooking masterful comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, and artsy foreign films — classics like The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Touch of Evil, and The Big Lebowski.

History, fortunately, is the ultimate arbiter of greatness. Before this year’s ceremony, we’re taking a closer look at 2015 films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The film: Spike Lee seized the text of Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old play Lysistrata, in which the women of a warring society withhold sex until the men stop fighting, and updated it to modern-day America — specifically Chicago — where the homicide rate is on par with the warzone in Iraq, hence the film’s pejorative title.

Lee, along with co-writer Kevin Willmott and a dazzling ensemble cast, created a symphonic musical (spoken in verse) that addresses a whiplash-inducing inventory of current issues. It’s a perfect companion piece to the director’s Do the Right Thing. More than 25 years after that seminal film, Lee still isn’t shy about sledgehammering hot buttons, while also lacquering the story in layers of gray, and planting within its core, for anyone with the eyes to see it, a classic message of hope.

Why it wasn’t nominated: Well, it might have helped if people in the journalism industry (not to mention Hollywood) had actually seen the film. Chi-Raq’s first trailer dropped in November and was met with an imbecilic wave of criticism from Chicago politicians and mockery from audiences that interpreted Lee’s use of free verse as silly. Somehow, a movie that plays with the immediacy of a scalding geyser erupting right beneath our feet opened in early December with little fanfare, despite positive reviews.

In my emphatic grade A review for the film on Dec. 3, I used the final paragraph as a taunting dare to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The idea of Chi-Raq receiving a Best Picture nomination is so unfathomable as to be a fantasy,” I wrote. “But what about Lee and Willmott’s dense, gorgeously woven adapted screenplay? Or the dazzling cinematography by maestro lenser Matthew Libatique? Or the magnificent musical score by Terrence Blanchard? Or Nick Cannon’s furious original song, “Pray 4 My City”? Or the performances by [Teyonah] Parris or [Samuel L.] Jackson or [Jennifer] Hudson or even [John] Cusack? Is it going to be #OscarsSoWhite, all over again? Your move, Academy.”

What’s bizarre is that Chi-Raq, despite its own filmmaker’s boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards, isn’t even mentioned next to solo-nomination films like Straight Outta Compton or Creed as an example of Oscar injustice. (It happens to be, by the way, a more fresh, daring and vital film about race and the real world than either of those two titles.) Does its snub have something to do with how Lee makes Academy voters feel? In November, he received an Honorary Oscar from the Board of Governors, and in his acceptance speech he told the room: “Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I see no black folks except for the brother man at the security who checks my name off the list as I go into the studio.” That could as well have been a line from Chi-Raq.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: The opening words of Chi-Raq are “This is an emergency,” both spoken and written in large fire-exit letters. Even if the same cannot be said for the social catastrophies at its heart, the fate of the film is no such crisis. Chi-Raq was the first feature to be released by Amazon Studios, and though its box office take was only $2.7 million, it will only grow in visibility thanks to the streaming service. (Amazon Prime members got access to the movie at no additional cost on Feb. 4.)

And as more people actually see the movie, its reputation will undoubtedly rise, not simply for the virtuosity of the filmmaking, but the topicality of its story. The film name-checks Sandy Hook, Ferguson, George Zimmerman, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Roger Goodell, and Dylann Roof, among many others. Someday it’s going to be thrilling to watch Chi-Raq as a time capsule of what America looked and sounded like in 2015 — in an inevitable double feature with Do the Right Thing, itself an outraged, honest dispatch from the United States circa 1989.

In Chi-Raq’s most incendiary scene, a priest played by John Cusack (based on real-life preacher and social activist Michael Pfleger), chronicles the biography of a handgun in one fireball, voice-cracking monologue, screaming that a little girl is dead because “politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association.” Years after the 2016 Oscars, viewers that took the time to watch Chi-Raq will remember that no other film of 2015 — and no other filmmaker — took on real issues and talked about them like that.

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