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Spike Lee addressed how long it took The Academy to recognize his body of work while calling out a few films he believes are less-than-deserving of the coveted best picture win during the 46th Chaplin Award Gala on Thursday night.
Hosted by Film at Lincoln Center, the evening recognized Lee’s impact on filmmaking and television nearly two years after he was announced as the honor’s latest recipient. The ceremony and tribute, which was preceded by free outdoor screenings of Mo’ Better Blues and Do the Right Thing in August, also marked the first event held at The Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall since the venue shut down in March 2020.
While speaking with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who served as the evening’s moderator, Lee opened up about how he views recognition by the Academy. When Walker asked “was it too late, was it too soon, was it right on time?” Lee responded, to audience laughs, “Too soon?” before sharing that, “We all want to get acclaim and recognition for the work we do, whatever it is.”
The director then broke down how he’s viewed The Academy’s voting choices from his childhood, when his mother, Jacquelyn Lee, would let him stay up on Sunday nights to watch the ceremony.
“More often than not, the films The Academy picked, I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s some bullshit,’” Lee said. “So that’s just the way it is. At that early age, I knew that films [weren’t winning] that could stand the test of time.”
Lee clarified that he wasn’t going to make that generalization about all the awarded films, but there were two best picture winners he would keep it “100” on. “Driving Miss Daisy,” Lee said quickly into the mic before he followed in the same tone, “Green Book.”
“That’s my opinion,” he said. “And I’ve seen this again and again.”
Lee acknowledged his issue with the 2019 win for Green Book and 1989 win for Driving Miss Daisy in the 2019 Academy Awards press room following his first competitive Oscars win with BlacKkKlansman for best adapted screenplay. After reports stated the director had turned his back to the stage in the Dolby Theater and eventually left the room as the Green Book winners accepted their Oscar, Lee told press room reporters, “This is my sixth glass and you know why.”
“I’m snake-bit,” he continued. “Every time someone is driving somebody I lose. But in ’89 I didn’t get nominated, so.”
Lee also said that artists aren’t just facing Academy voters who make questionable choices. They’re also facing audiences and critics whose opinions evolve over time. Films that were once shamed can, in time, become celebrated, adding an additional layer to the recognition conversation.
“Forget about the Academy Awards. [There are] films that come out that, like, people just pissed on,” he said. “And then when time goes by, all of a sudden, it’s a great film.”
Lee pointed to his 2000 satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled as an example, before telling Walker that “there are a lot of things that go into” how a film is recognized upon its initial release. “That’s something I don’t control, so as an artist, you just got to put it out and understand that it might not hit right from the jump.”
The rest of the evening, which served as a celebration of Lee’s decades-spanning and culture-shifting library, saw the creative speak to the roles his parents and family have played in fostering his art, the personal impact of historically black colleges on his life and work, how it frequently captures and catalogs New York City and whether there’s ultimately anywhere left for the director to go.
Ahead of Lee’s appearance on stage aired a montage of footage from various episodes in Lee’s HBO docuseries NYC Epicenters 9/11 → 2021 ½, which will air its final — and previously controversial — episode 20 years after the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Walker and CNN anchor Don Lemon also introduced Lee ahead of his panel, with Walker describing him as a creative “we admire, adore and love.”
“He is a force for justice in the world, and I think it is so appropriate that we are here at Film at Lincoln Center and that this institution is itself ushering in the new season in New York,” Walker said. “His first student film was sponsored by Film at Lincoln Center, and so for Spike Lee, tonight represents a return home.”
Lemon, who called Lee fearless, in addition to “brash, bold and brilliant” paid special respect to the director’s contributions within the film canon to representations of Black American life and culture.
“We owe you a debt for bringing into our lives these unforgettable stories and characters so that never again will a historically black college, inner city or New Orleans upper Ninth Ward be just a place on a map. Because of you, for millions of Americans, these are now places that live in our collective consciousness,” Lemon said of Lee’s work. “You didn’t just make Do the Right Thing. Again and again and again, you have done the right thing.”
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