Cannes Film Festival 2021 Kicks Off With Spike Lee as First-Ever Black Jury President

Spike Lee Cannes

The 74th Annual Cannes Film Festival kicked off on Tuesday, July 6, marking its return to the French Riveria after not going ahead in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Making history at the festival was revered filmmaker Spike Lee, who is the first Black president of the jury tasked with voting on which films receive the prestigious Palm d’Or. The panel consists of nine artists and actors including Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Serpent‘s Tahar Rahim and Parasite‘s Song Kang-ho.

The Oscar-winning director told the press that “Cannes is the world’s greatest film festival. No disrespecting other film festivals. Vive la France!” Lee has been attending the glamourous event since 1986 when his first film She’s Gotta Have It debuted at the festival.

Speaking to Chaz Ebert — the widow of the late and legendary film critic Roger Ebert — Lee responded to her recollection that her husband had been furious that Lee’s groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing hadn’t won the top jury prize in 1989. Lee took the opportunity to reflect on the issue of racism and police brutality against Black folx.

“I want you to know that I have a very special place in my heart for Roger, and you know that,” Lee said. “That was not a popular decision what he felt about the film. A lot of people felt that, especially American press, said this [would] start race riots all over America.”

He continued, “A couple weeks ago was the 32nd anniversary of the film. I wrote it in 1988. When you see brother Eric Garner, when you see king George Floyd murdered, lynched. I think of Radio Raheem. And you think and hope that 30 mother-f—king years later, Black people would stop being hunted down like animals. So, I’m glad to be here, though.”

The Oscar-winning director also took the opportunity to answer questions about the ongoing debate about films made for streaming services and what place, if any, they have at a prestigious event like Cannes.

“Cinema and screening platforms can coexist,” Lee, who released his film Da 5 Bloods on Netflix in 2020, said. “At one time, there was a thinking that TV was going to kill cinema. This stuff is not new. It’s all cycle. And it’s well documented that She’s Gotta Have It, when it appeared at film festivals, was a launching pad for my career.”

Lee’s presidency of the Cannes selection committee comes at a crucial time in the film industry as more organisations are being held accountable for their lack of diversity. For example, following extensive criticism of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for its complete lack of Black journalists, the Golden Globes will not be held in 2022 as the group works to reform its policies and increase the number of people of colour in its ranks.

The Cannes Film Festival will run until July 17, 2021.

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