Spike Lee was honored by his peers and associates Thursday as he became the 34th recipient of the American Cinematheque Award, given to a filmmaker or star who has achieved, and continues to achieve, great success in their career.
The honor, usually presented during a glitzy tribute dinner, had to go virtual this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop Lee’s wide swath of admirers and colleagues from participating via Zoom and other means in the slickly produced and nicely assembled show that went off without a hitch this evening. Hosted by Jodie Foster, who previously co-starred with Denzel Washington in 2006’s Inside Man — Lee tonight recalled it as one of his personal favorites — the tribute included an innovative feature showing virtual conversations between pairs of various past artists from all fields who have worked with Lee, focusing on a specific film on which they participated. It was a nice way to get to the essence of what makes Lee such a revered filmmaker by hearing specific stories of how he creates his particular brand of movie magic.
Barry Alexander Brown (Malcolm X) and Sam Pollard (Jungle Fever) shared fascinating insights on their time with Lee in the editing room, while Robi Reed (Clockers) and Kim Coleman (BlacKkKlansman) discussed the casting process of their films, a particular clue to actors watching about how casting directors can get Lee’s attention for talent they think are worthy. Ernest Dickersen, who attended NYU film school with Lee, talked about cinematography on Mo’ Better Blues with Ellen Kuras, who shared her stories behind the camera of Lee’s Emmy-winning documentary 4 Little Girls. Jon Kilik and Monty Ross, both producers of Lee’s seminal third film, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, swapped tales of pulling off the challenging job of getting that movie made the way Lee envisioned it.
Ruth E. Carter, costume designer of Bamboozled, told Lee’s first production designer Wynn Thomas (She’s Gotta Have It) about a phone call she got from the director who began by saying “I am the man of your dreams,” to which she replied, “Denzel?” Veteran actors Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo exchanged anecdotes about their respective experiences with Lee on Chi-Raq and Crooklyn (see the later exchange in the video below).
Foster, an engaging host and a previous American Cinematheque honoree herself, conducted an interview with Lee that was sprinkled throughout the fast-paced two-hour show that was also chock-full of perfectly chosen clips illustrating what everyone was talking about.
The Lee mantra is basically to never slow down, as he explained to Foster.
“You have to work on your craft no matter what it is — you have to work, you have to work, you have to work,” the 63 year old told her. “If you love what you are doing you can delay Father Time, so I have some more joints to make. ..At the very beginning I wanted to build a body of work because I noticed the artists I admired kept building their body of work. It wasn’t just a one-and-done thing. Over the years they kept working on their craft. For me that was the model.”
At Foster’s prodding Lees discussed the challenges of specific movies. About Malcolm X he said that other than his first, She’s Gotta Have It, it was the hardest film he ever had to make. “You could also argue it was the most important film, and the film that had the most riding on it,” he added. Of Clockers he had a specific goal in mind noting that “at the time there were an abundance of these urban hip hop movies, in my opinion glorifying drug dealing and all that. I wanted this film to be the opposite side of that.”
Lee also tossed off any concerns about criticism he and his films have received over the years, saying that he learned early on at NYU that all of that goes with the territory in the real world and that it can actually be valuable. He indicated also that he wasn’t comfortable directing actors until he got to Do the Right Thing, and tells of early encounters with Laurence Fishburne that set him straight as to actors’ needs.
And of course every filmmaker remembers those films that just didn’t quite make it with audiences and/or critics, and Lee is no different, as he points out.
“A lot of my films did not connect with the audience right away. Exhibit A: Bamboozled. Exhibit B: 25th Hour,” he said. “But that is the great thing about DVD, Blu-rays. Sooner or later people will catch up to it. Sometimes for whatever reason it just didn’t click upon release, but I always believe the good stuff will find an audience sooner or later.”
The importance of mentoring and education came up as he and Foster were joined later in the event by director Ryan Coogler, with Lee, an NYU professor, noting that teaching runs in his family as his mother and grandmother also taught. He said he has been teaching about 16 years, and that film school had a tremendous impact on him, and informs themes in some of his films. “If you’re a teacher and not learning from your students, then you are not a teacher,” he said about what he personally gets from giving back in this way.
With Coogler, who directed the late Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther, Lee especially wanted to give his own tribute to his Da 5 Bloods star. “The character in Da 5 Bloods is so enormous — you just can’t cast anybody,” Lee said of Boseman’s platoon leader. “He is described as mythic. You are talking about a guy who played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Black Panther.”
Coogler said that other than writing something shortly after hearing of Boseman’s death last summer he has not publicly talked about it. “I love him and miss him,” he said, emotionally. “He was only with us a limited amount of time but he gave us so much. He gave us an infinite amount of gifts in that time.”
After actress Rosie Perez talked about the real-world impact of Lee’s cinematic contributions, the rest of the key cast of Da 5 Bloods collectively gathered via Zoom to present the award to their director and also share their own memories of meeting and working with Lee. Lindo was joined by Isiah Whitlock Jr, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Jonathan Majors, the latter’s words leading directly to the presentation.
“There are filmmakers who create entertainment for the world. and there are those who create commentaries for our world. Personally I don’t know another person that so naturally and so honestly creates both time and time again,” he said. “Hopefully all artistic artists grow in their craft, Spike, but you started with compassion and guts and truth. Vision ferocious before anyone knew who you were, and passion before anyone knew that you are. I know that from courtside at the Knicks game and hanging out with you, and having a beer with you in Thailand, you don’t speak through your art, you speak through your humanity.”
Lee, already heard from throughout the show, ended it all with just a few last words: “I want to thank anyone who has worked in front of and behind the camera with me in my four decades. You know I love you and thank you for your support over the years, and let’s keep it going.”
Here’s the exchange between Bassett and Lindo:
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