Usually the annual American Cinematheque tribute puts a bunch of Hollywood folks in black tie in a hotel ballroom to ingest rubber chicken and champagne. This year’s Spike Lee award show was a streamlined virtual affair hosted by “Inside Man” star Jodie Foster, who conducted a charming interview with Lee over the course of an evening interspersed by films clips and memories from such collaborators as actors Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett, cinematographers Ernest Dickerson and Ellen Kuras, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, and production designer Wynn Thomas.
Brooklyn-based Lee, who is 63, has directed 25 features and documentaries plus countless commercials, collecting Emmys, BAFTAs, Cannes and critics awards along the way, including last year’s Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman.”
“If you love what you are doing you can delay father time,” Lee said. “I’ve got some more joints to make. This award is not just for me but for all the people in front of and behind the camera. I wanted to build a body of work. The great artists I loved had a body of work. Over the years they kept working on their craft. That was the model. A lot of my films did not connect with the audience right away. Exhibit A: ‘Bamboozled.’ Exhibit B: ’25th Hour.’ 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.”
When Foster added Ryan Coogler to the conversation, Lee told the “Black Panther” director, “when I see the next wave come up and keep this thing going it makes me happy,” he said, citing the filmmakers who came before him, Oscar Micheaux, Melvin van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis, “so things don’t start just when you show up.”
Coogler asked the director about why teaching at NYU is so important to him. Lee recalled his father, who was a freshman at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College when Martin Luther King was a senior. His mother and grandmother attended Spelman College. “I come from a long line of teachers. My mother taught Black literature and was also a cinephile. My grandmother taught art in the Jim Crow south in Macon, Georgia and Atlanta where I was born. In 50 years my grandma never taught one white student because of Jim Crow laws. She saved her checks for her grandchildren’s education. I was the first born and had first dibs. My grandmother put me through Morehouse and NYU graduate film school.”
“We can’t skip past Brother Chadwick,” Lee said to Coogler, who hasn’t spoken publicly about Chadwick Boseman since his death. “I loved him and miss him,” Coogler said. “His talent was so potent. Even though he was only with us for a limited amount of time, he gave us so much. He gave us an infinite amount of gifts in that time.”
Lee cast Boseman in “Da 5 Bloods.” “His Stormin’ Norman, the way the brothers view him is almost mythological,” said Lee. “He was the world’s greatest soldier. You can’t cast just anybody. He played Jackie Robinson, brother number one James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and the Black Panther. Goddamn!”
Foster and Lee bantered over what it’s like to film a Spike Lee joint with two cameras running. Actors on his sets have to be prepared for his run-and-gun shooting style, which he learned from another New York filmmaker, Sidney Lumet. “We get it and quit it and go home,” he said. “I have come to learn that actors do not want to spend their creative energy in their trailer. They want to be on set, want to be in front of camera.”
That was fine with Foster, who said she admired his “energy and spontaneity.”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Editors Barry Alexander Brown and Sam Pollard remembered making the adjustment from Lee’s freewheeling early films like “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and ‘Mo Better Blues” to the more ambitious and classical 1992 Warner Bros. feature “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington as the controversial Nation of Islam leader. “Did you bring your passport?” Lee said to his star, “just in case we have to slip out of the country under the cover of darkness.” Lee added, “With the exception of ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ my first feature, it was the hardest I ever had to make, the most important, with the most riding on it.”
Producer Monty Ross said, “We wanted to prove to Hollywood that we could deliver on a big project, micromanage a budget, and deliver the kind of content that would make a difference.”
Casting directors Robi Reed and Kim Coleman were tasked by Lee with finding fresh new faces, like green “Clockers” find Mekhi Phifer, who had to improvise with Harvey Keitel. Before his audition to play a tattooed racist in “BlacKkKlansman,” Coleman warned Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen, who had developed an impeccable Southern accent, not to tell Lee where he was from. He landed the part.
Of course one order of business for the Cinematheque, whose Egyptian Theatre was recently acquired by Netflix, was reminding Academy voters about Netflix’s Oscar contender, Lee’s Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods.” Jonathan Majors joined four of his castmates to present the Cinematheque Award to Lee. Best Actor contender Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and Clarke Peters were Lee veterans, while Majors and Norm Lewis were the newbies. “When you get on the train doing the work,” Lindo said, “we were all in it together. I love that world, the mission. We know what the mission is. There’s a safety and support he provides to his coworkers.”
As he presented the award, Majors praised Lee’s “compassion, guts and truth. You don’t speak through your art, you speak through your humanity.”