RRed carpet talks are often not memorable. Unless the reporter on the microphone stopped Spike Lee. Whether he is dressed in purple as a tribute to Prince or in purple and gold to honor Kobe Bryant; if his sneakers are more eye-catching than the frames of his glasses, that’s what Lee says that usually makes the headlines. Intrepid and quick-witted, the director dances through the Hollywood cavalcade, upsetting some and inspiring millions of others. And that’s without counting the genre films he makes.
This week, the lord of American cinema takes a place of honor at the head of the jury of the Cannes festival, at the head of this small panel of illustrious actors and directors who will decide the winners after two weeks in the south of France, celebrating cinematographic talent. He is the first person in the African diaspora to assume the role of president.
This was not planned but it seems appropriate that Lee is presiding over a festival destined to go down in history for other reasons. Canceled last year, the 2021 edition, the 74th in its history, takes place much later in the year than usual, so the legendary Riviera will actually be hot. They should be sun shades, not umbrellas, which are held above the stars as they smile and this time climb the steps of the Palais des Festivals.
The weather and Covid-19 measurements will be the most obvious novelties on the Croisette, but many others will also be different. The aftermath of the #MeToo scandal and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic mean that the usual parade of wealthy older men accompanying scantily clad women draped in ridiculously expensive jewelry is not quite what the doctor ordered.
However, we need to cheer ourselves up. And no one knows that better than Lee, who has been at the center of the coronavirus emergency in New York City. It was a metropolitan trauma, he said, like no other. “Not even after September 11. It’s a whole different level. At one point, we were the epicenter. For that 19. For that ‘rona. The sirens sound 24/7. It was chaos.
Lee’s most recent film is a documentary that traces the history of New York City from the World Trade Center attacks to today. But earlier in the year, he also won accolades, if not numerous Oscars, for his Vietnam War veteran saga. Da five bloods. Lee pointed out that he was not heavily nominated by the Academy by selling “We Wuz Robbed” posters on his website.
A more thoughtful response to the regular lack of awards for black talent at the Oscars came in a New Yorker interview in March. “I had a very difficult relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but I think they do a real job of putting things in order, to make their constituencies more reflective of what the America, and that’s something I think they believe in. I also understand that it won’t happen overnight, “he said.
Lee won an Oscar in 2019 for his screenplay adapted for BlackKkKlansman, and he was also named best director for the first time. The film, which tells the true story of the racist sect’s police infiltration in the 1970s, also won him the Grand Prix at Cannes.
For Kwame Kwei-Armah, British playwright and director, Lee is quite simply the most senior man in the business. “For me, Spike Lee is the godfather: the godfather of black cinema. We’re talking about James Brown, well, he’s our James Brown, and he’s lasted that long, “he said over the weekend. The couple are co-writing a musical, Lee’s premiere, on the way the drug Viagra was invented.
“The brilliance of Spike is not only in the films he made, but more importantly in the way he innovated the form,” added Kwei-Armah. “At the very beginning of his career, he was the guy who really brought the soundtrack into our consciousness in a new way. And he used the famous cart stroke. There is no greater innovator of his kind.
Although Lee has long been linked to Brooklyn as a filmmaker, he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Jacquelyn, Lee’s mother, who died when her son was 20, was the family’s movie buff. Her father, Bill, a jazz musician, grew up near Selma, so memories of slavery and lynchings were close. Grandpa, father and son all studied at Morehouse College, the long-established African-American arts institution in Atlanta, Georgia. Lee’s father was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr, and politics was a hot topic at home.
“I’m 63, so I remember the night Dr King was murdered,” Lee said during the promotion. Da five bloods. “I remember watching the news where over 100 American cities were on fire. It’s in the movie.
After Morehouse, Lee got an internship at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles where he saw the premiere screening of Apocalypse now on Sunset Boulevard. He remains a devoted fan of Francis Ford Coppola. When he started graduate film school in New York City in 1980, he wasn’t the only gifted Lee in the class. Oscar winner Ang Lee was also in attendance.
The students all saw the 1915 epic of DW Griffith The birth of a nation, a film once used as a recruiting tool for the Klan, and the nascent noir filmmaker has been deranged. In response, he made his first real film, The answer. Film school, Lee has since said, was all about getting your hands on a camera. “We just wanted the equipment,” he recalled. “We wanted to learn the basics – how to read a light meter and this and that. But, in terms of teaching us how to make a movie, we would teach ourselves. “
The first to have a big impact was the insistent She must have it in 1986, then at the end of the 1980s Do the right thing brought Lee to international fame, with his urgent arguments and his propelling Public Enemy soundtrack. It told a half-true story of racial conflict revolving around a pizza place and it was the movie Barack Obama took Michelle on their first date.
Lee also starred in the film as Mookie, an irresponsible youth, and he described the character’s philosophy to the media: “Just live the next day: he can’t see past the next day.” Some white audiences were troubled by Mookie’s destructive violence. For Lee, that reaction was the point. “He was a nice character. They feel betrayed when he throws the trash out the window, ”he said at the time, adding that he was not defending the things people do in his films.
After more than 40 films, the highlights include Malcolm X, Watchmakers and Miracle at Sainte-Anne, as well as the more commercial thriller The man of the interior. An avid sports fan, Lee says he always knew he had to push it to build a track record. “I knew it would be harder for me to be a black filmmaker. But I realized that you just need to be two or three-four times better. The same as any black athlete. They have to be better than the white boy to make the team.
Still, he likes the classic white film canon very much, claiming the 1948 John Huston film. The treasure of the Sierra Madre had a key influence on Da five bloods. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Huston’s drama chronicles the breakdown of friendships between a group in search of gold, as greed sets in. In Lee’s hands, the friction within the group also involves politics. One of the characters is a supporter of Donald Trump, or as Lee always calls him, Agent Orange. The politics are also there in the simple act of telling a black version of the history of Vietnamese vets. “I mean, you don’t have to work very hard to draw the parallel between the Vietnam War and [hurricane] Katrina and the coronavirus, ”Lee said. “People below, we’re going to catch hell no matter what it is: war, pandemic. “
In Lee’s opinion, this perspective on America is a “patriotic act of the extreme” since “you cannot be more patriotic than speaking the truth to power about what is wrong with this country.” It’s a powerful stuff, but along with the genuine Lee playfulness that Cannes should be enjoying this week, the director also named the five guys in his cast after the original members of Temptations.