The ceremony celebrating Lee’s more than three decade-career was presented virtually due to the ongoing pandemic. A collage of images from some of his most iconic “joints” (including “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” and “Jungle Fever”), as well as a few personal photos of Lee with his wife Tonya, and children Satchel and Jackson and at a basketball game (presumably the filmmaker’s beloved Knicks) with Denzel Washington, served as the backdrop for the 34th annual event.
Past American Cinematheque honors recipient Jodie Foster hosted the broadcast, asking her “Inside Man” director, “It’s gotta be crazy to be honored for lifetime achievement. Does it seem like it’s been that long? Do you feel like you’re 100 years old?”
“If you love what you’re doing, you can delay Father Time,” Lee replied, “So I’ve got some more joints to make.”
Foster and Lee’s conversation continued throughout the show, with Lee opening up about filming “Malcolm X” with Washington, sharing how Laurence Fishburne made him a better director on “Do the Right Thing” (“It wasn’t until my third film that I felt comfortable directing actors.), detailing his family connections to Morehouse College, and returning to NYU film school as a teacher after attending alongside Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson in the ’80s. Lee also shared perspective on the films that didn’t connect with audiences initially, like “Bamboozled” or “25th Hour,” saying, “You could do that with almost any artist, a novel, a painting, a play… but I think that the good stuff will find an audience sooner or later.”
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler made a special appearance during Lee and Foster’s chat, with the “Black Panther” director asking a few questions, much to Lee’s delight.
“When I see the next wave come up and keep this thing going, it makes me happy,” Lee said of Coogler. “The happiest people for the success of Black Panther were you, Disney, I was number third.”
Lee and Coogler also spoke about the passing of their mutual friend, actor Chadwick Boseman — who starred in Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and Coogler’s “Black Panther.”
“I haven’t spoken about a Chad publicly beyond, writing some words, but what I will say about Chadwick is that I love him. And I miss him. His talent was so potent that even though the was only with us for a limited amount of time, he gave us so much,” Coogler said. “He gave us an infinite amount of gifts even in that limited amount of time.”
“The character in my film ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ Stormin’ Norman, the way his brothers view him as like almost mythical. As Clarke Peters’ character says, ‘He’s the world’s greatest soldier.’ They revered him,” Lee agreed. “And so you just can’t cast anybody for that, because the way these guys are describing him, he’s mythic. So mythic — you’re talking about an actor who played Jackie Robinson; the Godfather, soul brother number one, James Brown; Thurgood Marshall; then the Black Panther; god damn!”
The cast of “Da 5 Bloods” — Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Delroy Lindo — presented Lee with the honor — “without handing it to you because Dr. Fauci said so,” Majors noted.
“There are filmmakers that create entertainment for the world, and there are those who create commentaries to our world,” Majors said. “I don’t know another person who so naturally and so honestly creates both, time and time and time again. Hit after hit, banger after banger.”
He continued: “Hopefully all artists grow in their craft, but you started with compassion, guts and truth — ferocious before anyone knew who you were and compassionate before anyone knew that you were. You don’t speak through your art. You speak through your humanity.”
Displaying the trophy before the virtual audience, Lee thanked his collaborators, adding, “I’m going into my fourth decade. … Thank you for the support you’ve given me over the years. And let’s keep it going.”
Other presenters during the evening included Lee’s former collaborators — like Lindo (who also starred in “Malcolm X,” “Crooklyn” and “Clockers”) and Angela Bassett (who played Betty Shabazz in “Malcolm X,” plus 2015’s “Chi-raq”), longtime costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Wynn Thomas (“She’s Gotta Have It”), producers Monty Ross and Jon Kilik (“Do the Right Thing”), casting directors Robi Reed and Kim Coleman, cinematographers Ellen Kuras (“4 Little Girls”) and Dickerson (“Mo’ Better Blues”), editors Sam Pollard (“Jungle Fever”) and Barry Alexander Brown (“Malcolm X”) — interviewing each other and reminiscing about what it’s like to work with the prolific filmmaker.
“Do the Right Thing” star Rosie Perez also presented during the ceremony, noting Lee’s philanthropic efforts off screen, including his work with Soles4Souls, Champions for Children, the Creative Coalition and the AARP.
The American Cinematheque honor is the latest in a long list of accolades recently bestowed on the filmmaker, who has four films selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Lee finally won his first competitive Oscar in 2019 for his “Blackkklansman” screenplay, nearly 30 years after his first nomination in 1990 for “Do the Right Thing.”