The Cannes Film Festival has announced that Spike Lee would serve as president of its jury in May, making the American director the first Black person to do so in the French festival’s 73-year history.
In a statement signed from what he called “Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York,” Lee detailed his history with the prestigious festival dating to his 1986 debut feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” which won the Prix de la Jeunesse, an award honoring young directors. Lee, 62, has since returned to Cannes six times. His most recently chosen film, 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” won the Grand Prix, or second place overall.
“In this life I have lived, my biggest blessings have been when they arrived unexpected, when they happened out of nowhere,” Lee wrote. “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.”
“BlacKkKlansman,” a thriller starring John David Washington as a Black police officer who infiltrates a local Ku Klux Klan chapter in the late 1970s, marked Lee’s first return to the Cannes competition after 22 years. The film received a lengthy standing ovation – “It doesn’t always have to be that way,” he told The Washington Post that year, as “people get booed at Cannes” – and went on to earn six Academy Award nominations, including his first best director nod. (He won best adapted screenplay.)
The reception to “BlacKkKlansman” represented a high point in Lee’s relationship with the festival, which hit a snag in 1989 when Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” beat out Lee’s acclaimed front-runner “Do the Right Thing” for the top prize, the Palme d’Or. Lee never held anything against Soderbergh but instead directed his frustration toward that year’s jury president, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whom Lee heard found his now-iconic lead character, Mookie, to be “unheroic.” In the film, Mookie incites a riot after another character is choked to death by a police officer.
The situation has figured into conversations surrounding the myth that “Black films don’t travel well,” which, as Lee once discussed with fellow director Jordan Peele, has less to do with cultural differences and more to do with a dearth of opportunities for Black filmmakers.
Like many major film festivals, Cannes has attracted criticism over a perceived lack of diversity – in terms of gender, too – but has shown signs of improvement in recent years. Cannes Film Festival president Pierre Lescure and artistic director Thierry Frémaux issued a joint statement Tuesday expressing their hope that Lee will help “shake things up.”
“Spike Lee’s perspective is more valuable than ever,” they wrote. “Cannes is a natural homeland and a global sounding board for those who reawaken minds and question our stances and fixed ideas.”
Lee added: “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.”