Spike Lee is being honored with the American Cinematheque Award, and it undoubtedly encapsulates the director’s nearly five decades of artistic achievement. The award will be presented Jan. 14 in a virtual ceremony. “It’s a recognition of the body of work, and I’ve been putting in the work since the fall of 1979,” says Lee.
Previous American Cinematheque Award honorees include Amy Adams (2017), Bradley Cooper (2018) and Charlize Theron (2019).
After graduating from Morehouse College, Lee attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the graduate film program. He has been a tenured professor and the artistic director since 2002. Lee also eyes the next generation of filmmakers and considers himself a “proud parent” when looking at all of his students, including directors Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”).
“I’ve always felt that teachers that teach well are also learning from their students, too,” he says. “So in the 18 years I’ve been teaching at NYU film school, it’s been a mutual exchange. They’ve taught me stuff too. I know how long and hard this business can be. I know that the amount of financial student loan debt they’re in when they come out. It’s no joke.”
Even in these times of uncertainty, Lee has had a prolific year. In June, Netflix released his latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” a post-traumatic Vietnam War drama starring Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman, who died in August from colon cancer at age 43. A few months later, in September, Lee unveiled the Toronto Intl. Film Festival’s opening night pic, “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” a cinematic recording of the Broadway show starring Academy Award- and Grammy-winning musician David Byrne. It premiered in October on HBO.
“Da 5 Bloods” has garnered many accolades during awards season, not just for Lee, but also for stars Lindo and Boseman. In the middle of his interview with Variety, the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, the oldest critics voting group in the country, gave Lee a special award for his short film “New York, New York,” which he says is “my love letter to New York City. The greatest city in the world.”
“As a cultural arts organization that celebrates the importance of film in our society, Spike Lee is the perfect choice for the Cinematheque’s annual award,” says Rick Nicita, chairman of the American Cinematheque’s board of directors. “Spike’s ability to perceive and depict the tone of contemporary society is shown in his movies, ranging from ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’ to name only a few. He continues his outstanding output with this year’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and ‘American Utopia.’ We look forward with great anticipation to where he will next shine his light.”
Lee won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and was also nominated for directing and producing it. Lee has also received nominations for original screenplay for “Do the Right Thing” and the documentary feature for “4 Little Girls.” He received an Honorary Oscar in 2015 for lifetime achievement and contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences.
Lee is one of the premier Black filmmakers that modernized Black cinema with classics including “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.” His other feature credits include “School Daze,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever,” “Crooklyn,” “Clockers,” “Girl 6,” “Get on the Bus,” “He Got Game,” “Summer of Sam,” “Bamboozled,” “25th Hour,” “She Hate Me,” “Inside Man,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Red Hook Summer,” “Oldboy” and “Chi-Raq.” Lee’s feature documentary work includes the Emmy-winning “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” a follow-up to his HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” and the Peabody Award-winning “A Huey P. Newton Story.”
In the television space, Lee launched the Netflix original series “She’s Gotta Have It,” which ran two seasons as an update to his 1986 film.
Lee is more invigorated and excited by cinema today than he was more than 35 years ago when he started film school and working on movies. “I’m doing what I love and, if you can make a living doing what you love, you won already.”
He’s aware of this honor when so many are hurting. His beloved city is struggling. One of the earliest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City’s economy has been disabled, while its many citizens are dying of coronavirus, especially those in neighborhoods of color.
“I appreciate every accolade. Every award but it’s not me alone. I got a crew. I got a gang. I got a family in front of and behind the camera. Tonya [his wife], my kids. My late mother, who was a cinephile. My father, jazz musician. There are just too many to this.”
Looking back at his career, and clearly etched in his soul, is New York City. The films that do it the most justice he says are, “the racial epithets scene in ‘Do the Right Thing’ and Edward Norton talking to the mirror in ‘25th Hour.’ That is all New York.”
There are no “redos” in his arsenal, nor is there something that he’s “most proud of.” He’s just Spike Lee.