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Commentary: Did bad marketing keep 'Chi-Raq' out of the Oscars?

(L-R) Rev. Al Sharpton, Teyonah Parris and Spike Lee attend the
(L-R) Rev. Al Sharpton, Teyonah Parris and Spike Lee attend the "CHI-RAQ" New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on December 1, 2015 in New York City.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

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Amy Nicholson is MTV's Chief Film Critic and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. She argues that Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" was not only the best film of the year, but it was also robbed of an Academy Award because of problems in diversity and marketing.

Here's the Oscar-worthy movie I haven't stopped talking about for three months: it's called "Chi-Raq," and its director, Spike Lee, won an Oscar this November.

Wait, November?

Yes, in November the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented Spike Lee with an Honorary Oscar, the award usually given to people in their 80s and 90s, when they've pretty much retired from filmmaking. Last year, "Miracle on 34th Street" star Maureen O'Hara won her Honorary Oscar at 95.

But Spike Lee is 58. It's strange that he would win a consolation Oscar this young — he can keep trying to earn a real Academy Award for decades. And the extra irony is that he won a consolation Oscar the same year that he made his best movie since "Do the Right Thing."


"Chi-Raq" is a bold, hot-blooded, hot-tempered musical comedy that updates the sex-strike premise of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" to modern day Chicago. Here, Lysistrata is a young feminist — think Gloria Steinem meets Pam Grier — who convinces every babe in town to stay celibate until their gangster boyfriends put down their guns.

"Chi-Raq" was my No. 1 movie of 2015. In the year of Black Lives Matter, this is the feisty, funny and furious film that deserves a gold statue. The script, which is all written in hip-hop rhyme, is terrific. The direction has passion and energy. And the acting couldn't be better.

"Chi-Raq" has award-worthy supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes and Dave Chappelle, and an award-winning star turn from newcomer Teyonah Parris, who was just voted Best Actress by the African-American Film Critics Association.

But Spike Lee won't be at the Oscars. "Chi-Raq" didn't get a single Academy Award nomination. In solidarity with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, Spike Lee is boycotting the Oscars just three months after he won one. You might have heard people complain that "Creed" and "Straight Outta Compton" were snubbed. But no one is mentioning "Chi-Raq." Why not?

The answer is simple: nobody saw it.

The problem isn't only diversity — it's technology. The movie business is changing faster than Oscar campaigns can keep up with. "Chi-Raq" was the first feature film released by Amazon. Unlike veteran Oscar masterminds like Harvey Weinstein, Amazon had no idea how to reach voters. Neither did Netflix, whose African civil war drama "Beasts of No Nation" also went ignored by the Academy.

This is a big deal, because Amazon and Netflix are becoming powerhouse indie film distributors. Last month at Sundance, they bought 10 movies — an unheard of amount of cash in the festival world.

Now, these new kings of cinema have to prove they can do more for this year's Oscar contenders than they did for Spike Lee. If not, they'll keep embarrassing themselves like Netflix did in Park City when it tried to buy Sundance's grand jury prize winner "Birth of a Nation" for a record-breaking $20 million — and got turned down.

Instead, the biopic of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner accepted a smaller offer from Fox Searchlight. "Birth of a Nation" decided it was worth losing millions of dollars to work with a studio that had more experience winning Academy Awards.

If their gamble works, maybe next year "Birth of a Nation" will change the #OscarsSoWhite conversation. Or maybe next year's Best Picture winner will be the Sundance hit critics preferred: Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester By the Sea" — purchased by Amazon.

So the bitter joke about Spike Lee's old-person honorary Oscar is that he's actually the first director to leap into the future. I'm still upset we won't see "Chi-Raq" at the Academy Awards. But the silver lining is you can see "Chi-Raq" right now at home — it's free on Amazon Prime.