Hooray for Spike Lee, First Black Jury President of the Cannes Film Festival: Cannes Does the Right Thing

"The Lee family sincerely thanks the Festival de Cannes, Pierre Lescure and Thierry Frémaux and the great people of France who have supported my film career throughout four decades. I will always treasure this special relationship. Peace and Love." Spike Lee

Just two years after his Oscar-winning film, "BlacKkKlansman" received a massive standing ovation before earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, trailblazing filmmaker Spike Lee has now become the first African-American Jury President in the festival's 73-year history. This honor would surely have been applauded by my late husband Roger, who once protested that he wouldn't return to Cannes after Lee's 1989 masterpiece, "Do the Right Thing," failed to win any prize, including the Palme d'Or. Spike himself sent Roger a humorous letter encouraging him to return, and he did. I can only imagine the joy he would have felt following this recent announcement. 

Roger first met Spike at Cannes three years prior, when his debut feature, "She's Gotta Have It" premiered in 1986, and they had several memorable interviews over the years. In the three decades following its release, "Do the Right Thing" has become a classic. Though many people at the Cannes premiere worried that Lee's film would incite racial violence, Roger saw the opposite, noting that the picture came "closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time," according to his original four-star review. The film embodies Roger's belief in cinema as an empathy-generating machine, inviting us to explore complex issues through the eyes of every character onscreen. 

We have also seen Spike embrace his role as an elder statesman of cinema. His creativity knows no bounds, nor does his desire to help emerging filmmakers. "In this life I have lived, my biggest blessings have been when they arrived unexpected, when they happened out of nowhere," wrote Lee in a statement. "When I got the call that I was offered the opportunity to be President of Cannes Jury for 2020, I was shocked, happy, surprised and proud all at the same time. 

"To me the Cannes Film Festival (besides being the most important film festival in the world - no disrespect to anybody) has had a great impact on my film career. You could easily say Cannes changed the trajectory of who I became in world cinema. It started way back in 1986 – my first feature film ‘She's Gotta Have It,’ which won the Prix de la Jeunesse in the Director's Fortnight. The next joint was in 1989 – ‘Do The Right Thing,’ an Official Selection in Competition. And I don't have the time nor space to write about the cinematic explosion that jumped off, still relative to this, 30 years later."

Lee continued, "Then ‘Jungle Fever’ 1991 - Official Selection in Competition, ‘Girl 6’ 1996 - Official Selection out of Competition, ‘Summer Of Sam’ 1999 - Director's Fortnight, ‘Ten Minutes Older’ 2002 - Official Selection in Un Certain Regard and then ‘BlacKkKlansman’ 2018 - Official Selection in Competition where it won the Grand Prix, which became the launching pad for the world theatrical release which led to my Academy Award for screenplay. So if you were keeping score that's 7 Spike Joints to be chosen. In closing I'm honored to be the first person of the African diaspora (USA) to be named President of the Cannes Jury and of a main film festival." 

The 2020 Cannes Film Festival, running from Tuesday, May 12th, through Saturday, May 23rd, will not reveal the full names of its jury members until mid-April, yet there's no question Lee's signature outspokenness and piercing insight will result in a lively press conference. 

To read Brian Tallerico's reviews of five Spike Lee films recently released on Blu-ray, click here. Also make sure to check out our report on the 2020 Insider's Cannes program.

Header photo caption: CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 14: Director Spike Lee wears knuckle rings with love and hate on them as he attends the screening of "Blackkklansman" during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 14, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 18th year.

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