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For Spike Lee, ‘The Struggle Continues’ When Making Multicultural Movies

Spike Lee at Cannes Lions (Photo credit: Cannes Lions 2023, Getty Images)

For Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, even though there’s been an uptick in the number of multicultural storytellers in movies, “the struggle continues.”

When asked at a press conference during the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in France last month on how he’d seen multiculturalism grow and change over the decades, and how it’s affected his art, Lee mentions his first feature film, 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Spike Lee press conference at Cannes Lions 2023 (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)
Spike Lee press conference at Cannes Lions 2023 (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)

“There’s definitely been a growth,” he says, adding that at the time “She’s Gotta Have It” came out, multiculturalism wasn’t a thing.

“It’s like, we didn’t even know the word existed, that term,” he says. “So we’ve grown.” At the same time, “We see that many different voices have not been given a chance to tell their story.”

That said, “I think that the powers that be are being more open to other stories being told,” Lee adds. “But we’re not there all the way. So the struggle continues. The struggle continues.”

Lee was at Cannes Lions to accept the inaugural honorary Creative Maker of the Year award.

ABOUT THE AWARD

When the festival was founded in 1954, the original Lion was created to recognize world-class creativity in TV and Cinema advertising. Seventy years later, the new award honors that heritage, and will celebrate an increasingly broad mix of creative makers who will bring ideas to life into the future.

Spike Lee press conference at Cannes Lions 2023 (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)
Spike Lee press conference at Cannes Lions 2023 (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)

“We know that world-class creative work takes so much to deliver,” says Simon Cook, CEO of Lions. “Since its inception, Cannes Lions has always been about the makers and the creatives who walk through walls to realize their vision. Going forward, this award will honor creative makers, from any discipline who are inspirational beacons for our whole community. In our 70th year, it seems appropriate that the inaugural Creative Maker award should go to a director. It’s a huge honor to present Spike Lee, one of the most influential figures in contemporary cinema and culture, with this accolade live at the Festival. Spike embodies the spirit of this award as a maker that strives to make creative stories and show the world what they can only see in their imaginations.”

The award, supported by Black At Cannes, honors Lee. And as the founder of his own creative agency, Spike DDB, his mission has been to help brands change the world by keeping pace with culture.

In a statement commenting on receiving the award, Lee says: “I’m honored to accept the inaugural Cannes Lions Creative Maker of the Year award for my contributions to the advertising industry, but a reminder: ‘We keep having these obstacles, these hurdles, we have to face and we have to keep knocking them down.’ I said this in 1997 and still say it today.”

Lee’s career spans over 30 years, receiving Oscar nominations five times, among them “Do The Right Thing,” “4 Little Girls” and the critically acclaimed hit feature “BlacKkKlansman” that he co-wrote and directed and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2018.

Lee was also awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2015 for his lifetime achievement and contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences.

JORDAN BRAND

Beyond his film work, Lee is also known for his legendary Jordan Brand TV commercials and marketing campaigns with Michael Jordan.

Commenting on the award and Lee’s legacy as a world-renowned creative maker, Shannon Watkins, chief marketing officer at Jordan Brand, says his focus on telling stories “combined with his ability to capture the pulse of Black Culture sets him apart from others in the industry. Spike created iconic memories and helped to build the soul of what Jordan Brand represents. Maybe the shoes on our feet wouldn’t make us jump as high as MJ, but just for a moment, we might feel the confidence and self-belief of the greatest to ever do it.”

Spike Lee at Cannes Lions (Photo credit: Cannes Lions 2023, Getty Images)
Spike Lee at Cannes Lions (Photo credit: Cannes Lions 2023, Getty Images)

Peter Ukhurebor, founder of Black At Cannes, adds: “Spike Lee is a creative role model who has paved the way for so many black creatives. The Creative Maker of the Year award inspires us to continue spearheading the creation of pathways for diverse voices and promoting inclusion and equity across the global creative industry. We applaud the partnership.”

Peter Ukhurebor with Spike Lee at Cannes Lions (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)
Peter Ukhurebor with Spike Lee at Cannes Lions (Photo credit: Doni Aldine)

During the press conference, Lee talked about making sure that when working on a brand like Jordan that the creatives are on the same page as the producers.

“I really don’t have a lot of complaints because a lot of the work I’ve done, especially with Nike and Brand Jordan, it’s been great,” he says. “But you are going to have those creative differences and that’s just the nature of the beast and you gotta work it out.”

A lot of times, according to Lee, “this stuff happens when the basic conversations aren’t had before you start the work. … You gotta be on the same page before you start to shoot.”

You are going to have those creative differences and that’s just the nature of the beast and you gotta work it out.

Lee talked about how there have been instances where the ad agency and the brand wanted to go right when he’s trying to go left.

“But again, to emphasize that, that stuff has to be worked out at the very first meeting before you get the job,” he says, adding that the problem is if these issues aren’t worked out at the beginning, one runs the danger of shooting the commercial and winding up being in the editing room afterwards and “arguing.”

WORKING WITH MICHAEL JACKSON

Another anecdote Lee shared was being asked by the late singer Michael Jackson to direct the music video for Jackson’s song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Regarding the song, Jackson has said:

The song is in fact about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the Black Man, I am the White Man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them.

Lee says Jackson hated the term “music video” and always adamantly referred to them as “short films.”

“Because of my films, [Jackson] wanted me to do ‘They Don’t Care About Us,'” Lee says, adding that Jackson’s trademark high-pitched voice would go down an octave when he was angry or irritated.

Additionally, Lee shot two versions of the music video: one in a U.S. prison and another in Salvador, Brazil.

Shooting in Brazil was “one of my most memorable moments,” according to Lee. “We had so much fun, and every time I go to Brazil, I get love.”

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