Spike Lee is not one to let sleeping dogs lie. Not only is the outspoken writer and director ready to remake classic films, but he’s also willing to revisit his own work. And in updating his old work for modern audiences — quite well, it turns out — he’s eager to re-air old grievances.
Specifically, he wants people to know that Denzel Washington should’ve won the Oscar for his performance in Lee’s 1992 film, “Malcolm X.” And he’s using “She’s Gotta Have It” to get the word out.
In the opening episode of Lee’s new Netflix original series, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) brings her friend and lover Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos) into her apartment. Leaning against one wall is a floor-to-ceiling canvas painting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.
Nola says that she and Malcolm share the same birthday, May 19, and then launches into an unprompted explanation as to why Denzel was “robbed of that Academy Award.”
“That was some shenanigans; some subterfuge; some straight skullduggery,” Mars says to Nola.
“He was too black; too strong,” she explains. “Al Pacino, though? Come on.”
Nola is referring to Washington’s opponent and the eventual winner in the 1993 Oscar race. Pacino was nominated for “Scent of a Woman” and beat Washington in “Malcolm X.”
Then Nola asks Mars if he’s familiar with a makeup call in basketball. He emphatically and eloquently replies in the affirmative, and now is as good of a time as any to note that Lee played Mars Blackmon in his original movie, and Lee himself loves basketball.
But in case you, dear reader, aren’t as big of a sports fan, a makeup call is when a referee misses a call he should’ve made and tries to make up for it later by calling a penalty of equal consequence. In essence, the official tries to compensate for one mistake by making another, in the hopes it all evens out in the end.
It’s more fan theory than fact, but the idea is largely accepted, if not approved. The same could be said for Nola’s analogy for the Oscars:
“It was an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makeup call!” she says. “Pacino got fucked four times: He got fucked over for ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part II.’ He got fucked over for ‘Serpico’ and fucked again, big-time, for ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ So they gave Pacino his long overdue Oscar, and then Denzel gets his makeup call Oscar for ‘Training Day,’ which he should’ve won anyway, so the Academy still owes D another one.”
Then, off-screen, Nola says, “And they better not fuck him over for ‘Fences’!”
Of course, they did. Casey Affleck beat Washington earlier this year, and Wise’s off-screen voice sounds like dialogue added after the fact, which very well could’ve been considering they were well into shooting before the Oscars took place in February.
Still, the point remains: The two-time Oscar nominee (and winner of an honorary award in 2016) still has a beef with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Lee is pissed about Washington’s repeated losses, and he’s probably certain they owe him at least two “makeup” Oscars by now. One can expect more thoughts from the filmmaker to circulate on social media, but for now, he’s venting his frustrations on Netflix.
In a way, there’s no better venue for it. Netflix is one of the most widely watched platforms in the world. “She’s Gotta Have It” is one of their original series, so it will likely get prominent placement on the medium and lots of coverage in the press.
This conversation obviously wasn’t part of the original film, given it came out in 1986 and “Malcolm X” didn’t hit until 1992. That his lead character is a cinephile helps make the discussion itself more justifiable, but it can still be a bit distracting, especially upon further investigation. Lee has literally made this argument in real-life himself on multiple occasions. Just take a look at this video from TCM’s 2015 Classic Film Festival, and compare what he said to what Nola says in the series.
Moreover, Nola’s random digressions in the series to talk about movies sound like she’s reading from a textbook; be it an actual textbook or the textbook of Mr. Lee’s mind, only he can say, but viewers can decide for themselves if Nola citing full titles and directors with every “casual” film reference is endearingly meta or distractingly grating.