In 71 years of the Directors Guild of America awards, with its approximately 16,000 members, they’ve never given their top prize to a black director. In 91 years the Oscars haven’t either. That could change this year.
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) has been the film’s industry’s most resilient and prolific black director yet Hollywood has kept him at a distance, at arm’s length, from its most cherished awards and levels of respect. Lee has worked in and out of the studio system but in 30 years had only earned a single Oscar nomination (Original Screenplay for 1989’s Do the Right Thing) until this year. To be fair, Lee also rebuffed Hollywood with a temperament that both fiery and icy. Sometimes to his detriment but always in favor of his work over accolades, even if he’s still smarting over his Cannes loss to sex, lies and videotape. He gained a triumph at Cannes last year though when BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix.
This year, he has a chance to make history but it’s not going to be easy. Even if BlacKkKlansman finds its way to a Best Picture win he’s going to have to triumph here first. And he’s up against a monumental competitor in critics’ favorite Alfonso Cuarón (ROMA). Not only is Cuarón a previous winner here (for 2013’s Gravity, for which he also won the directing Oscar) we have a potential situation lining up that could be similar to that year where Cuarón wins director for his technical achievement while the film about a very specific black experience in America still manages Best Picture (12 Years a Slave). I’m not saying it would be awkward for this to play out that way again but I’m not not saying it. While I feel it would be risky as hell to not predict Cuarón here, BlacKkKlansman lost some leverage here by losing the PGA last week to Green Book, I don’t think it’s an impossible reach. But the DGA has to make that leap first. Oscar voting doesn’t even start until February 12th so a win for Lee here would give the Academy the jumping off point for him.
But Lee isn’t just fighting against Cuarón here. Another eerie similarity exists within this year and that’s the aforementioned Green Book and its director, Peter Farrelly. The comparisons of Green Book and 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy began last September with the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it won the People’s Choice Award) but really became identical when the film won the PGA and then Farrelly was snubbed in Best Director at the Oscars, just as Daisy‘s Bruce Beresford was (and as we all know, the it went on to win Best Picture). Not that I think Farrelly stands a chance here; it’s simply an undeniable parallel as well as a deja vú that is another hurdle Lee must cross in order win DGA and his first competitive Oscar (he received an Honorary Oscar in 2015).
Only seven times has the DGA Award winner not won the corresponding Best Director Academy Award – the first two years (which are exceptions as they used a non-calendar year and took place after the Oscars) and then just five more times. Only two of those times was the DGA winner not Oscar-nominated – Ron Howard for Apollo 13 and Ben Affleck for Argo, the latter of which went on to win Best Picture anyway. The DGA often goes with the frontrunner, or what it perceives that frontrunner to be, but we’ve also seen an unprecedented number of BP/BD splits since the Oscar Best Picture expansion and the use of the preferential ballot.
What to do in the First-Time Feature category? A very new addition to the DGA, only in its fourth year, we have true standouts for debut films but only one has nominations both here and for the top award and that’s Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born. Last year, Jordan Peele (Get Out) was nominated for both and won First-Time Feature. The year before that, Garth Davis (Lion) was nominated for both and won First-Time Feature. Peele went on to earn a Best Director nomination at the Oscars whereas Davis did not. The Oscars snubbed Cooper for Best Director but I have to think he’s still the overwhelming favorite to win here. His film earned 8 Oscar nominations, is a blockbuster hit on a modest budget and his competitors, while all brilliant, feel like distant second-place finishers. Interestingly enough, nominee Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade) won the most critics’ awards for First Time Feature/Debut Director but we’re in a seemingly severe split between guilds and critics once again so a win for Burnham would be a surprise. But, if there were to be a spoiler it would be him. Then again, fellow nominee Matthew Heineman (A Private War) is a two-time DGA winner for Documentary.
Documentary Feature also holds a major nominee snubbed at the Oscars – Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and its director Morgan Neville. Could he still win here up against directors of Oscar-nominated docs like Free Solo, RBG and Hale County This Morning, This Evening? Four of the nominees here – Neville, RaMell Ross (Hale County), Tim Wardle (Three Identical Strangers) and Betsy West & Cohen (RBG) – are first-time DGA nominees. Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin were here in 2015 with Meru. I feel like the DGA will lean to Vasarhelyi & Chin as the more complicated directorial achievement (as well as being a top Oscar contender) but I’m not counting out West & Cohen (I think RBG is the Oscar frontrunner) or even Neville as a big FU to the Academy for snubbing his film.
The 71st Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards will be held at the Hollywood and Highland Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 2nd.
OUTSTANDING DIRECTORIAL ACHIEVEMENT IN FEATURE FILM
Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
PREDICTED: Alfonso Cuarón – Roma
Peter Farrelly – Green Book
Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay – Vice
OUTSTANDING DIRECTORIAL ACHIEVEMENT OF A FIRST-TIME FEATURE FILM DIRECTOR
Bo Burnham – Eighth Grade
PREDICTED: Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Carlos López Estrada – Blindspotting
Matthew Heineman – A Private War
Boots Riley – Sorry to Bother You
OUTSTANDING DIRECTORIAL ACHIEVEMENT IN DOCUMENTARY
Morgan Neville – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
RaMell Ross – Hale County This Morning, This Evening
PREDICTED: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin – Free Solo
Tim Wardle – Three Identical Strangers
Betsy West and Julie Cohen – RBG