Film at Lincoln Center recently presented its annual Chaplin Award to Academy Award-winner Spike Lee.
Postponed last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tribute was held last month at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
In his 40-year career, Lee has left an indelible mark on filmmaking and television. Among his films are Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, 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, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman—which won him the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and his first Academy Award for best adapted screenplay—and most recently, Da 5 Bloods.
Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015 for his lifetime achievement; he was also nominated for directing and co-producing BlacKkKlansman. Most recently, he was Emmy-nominated for outstanding directing for a variety special for his work on HBO’s American Utopia.
Lee’s outstanding feature documentary work includes If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, a follow-up to his triple-Emmy-winning HBO mosaic When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and the Peabody-winning A Huey P. Newton Story. Lee recently completed a two-season run as co-writer, co-producer and director of the Netflix original series She’s Gotta Have It, a contemporary update of his classic film. Lee is also known for his legendary Air Jordan TV commercials and marketing campaigns with Michael Jordan for Nike.
He is a graduate of Morehouse College and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is a tenured professor of film and artistic director. Lee’s production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks is based in Da Republic of Brooklyn, NY.
Speaking with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, at the tribute, Lee reminisced about his family. He said his mother—who died at the age of 41 from lung cancer—was “a force,” as well as being a cinephile who loved Sean Connery and took him to see Goldfinger.
On the other hand, he said his father, a jazz bassist, “hated Hollywood movies.” However, his father wrote the scores for his early films and was later succeeded by Terence Blanchard.
His grandmother, a former slave, lived to be 100, and was an art teacher; Lee said Picasso was one of her favorite artists. He said she saved her Social Security payments to underwrite Lee’s education, putting him through both Morehouse—where his grandfather and father also were educated— and the Tisch School, and providing the seed money for his first films.
“It’s very special to have the love and support from family,” he said.
Despite his many professional kudos, Lee said he never watched Academy Award shows on television growing up.
Discussing his hometown of New York, which is slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks (the subject of Lee’s new HBO docuseries, NYC Epicenter 9/11-2021 ½), Lee said “There will always be ups and downs,” adding, “When the time comes when you’re down, you draw strength from your ancestors.”
The Chaplin Award gala is the most important fundraising event of the year for Film at Lincoln Center; all proceeds benefit the organization in its mission to support the art and craft of cinema.
“We are proud to present Spike Lee with the Chaplin Award, a much-deserved honor and a long-overdue celebration,” said Film at Lincoln Center executive director Lesli Klainberg. “It’s hard to conceive of the New York film community without Spike. For four decades he has been making films that speak to our vibrant city and to the larger world, and his work remains as vital as ever.”
The gala began in 1972 when Film at Lincoln Center honored Charlie Chaplin, who returned to the U.S. from exile to accept the commendation. Since then, the Chaplin Award has been presented to many of the film industry’s most notable talents, including Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Laurence Olivier, Federico Fellini, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Helen Mirren.
Founded in 1969, Film at Lincoln Center is dedicated to supporting the art and elevating the craft of cinema and enriching film culture.
It fulfills its mission through the programming of festivals, series, retrospectives and new releases; the publication of Film Comment; the presentation of podcasts, talks and special events; and the creation and implementation of Artist Initiatives. Since its founding in 1969, this nonprofit organization has brought the celebration of American and international film to Lincoln Center, making the discussion and appreciation of cinema accessible to a broad audience and ensuring that it remains an essential art form for years to come.