Spike Lee blasted critics who suggested that “Do The Right Thing” would spark riots when it opened in 1989, while honoring one of the reviewers who came to the film’s defense. The remarks came as Lee received the Ebert Director Award, named for the late film critic Roger Ebert, at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Awards on Sunday.
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“Your husband got behind me when those mother f–kers in the press were saying that ‘Do the Right Thing’ was going to incite Black people to riot,” Lee said, as he accepted his prize from Chaz Ebert, the late critic’s wife. “That this film should not be shown in the United States.”
Lee cited David Denby and Joe Klein as two of the most prominent critical voices against the film, which has gone to be considered one of the greatest films ever made. The pair wrote, Lee recalled, that readers should “hope to God that this doesn’t open in your neighborhood.”
He went on to note, “The struggle still continues. It’s not an even playing field. But we’re going to keep getting on.”
The Oscar winner wasn’t the only bold-faced name at the dais, even if few could match his passion. Colman Domingo, Vicky Krieps, Patricia Arquette, Pedro Almodovar and Shawn Levy were honored at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Awards on Sunday.
Domingo, who was recognized with a performer award for his work in the prison drama “Sing Sing,” remembered a time when he was struggling in his career and complaining to his mother about not getting a break. She advised him to do some volunteer work so he “could do something that’s not about yourself” — a bit of advice that shaped his approach to performing. “Anything that I do or touch, it really is at the core,” he said. “If you see me play a villain or you see me play a hero or a Civil Rights leader, it’s service. That’s what I care about. And I’m very particular about what I do and the rooms that I’m in and the people that I want to build with. Because I want to love and fall in love with everyone that I work with. I really do.”
Krieps, who also received a performer award for her performance in the Western love story “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” said, “I never know what to think of prizes and awards… And then my children told me, ‘Mom, this is cool. It’s a trophy.’ And now I get it.”
Arquette, the recipient of the TIFF Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award, is at Toronto with her feature directorial debut “Gonzo Girl,” a drama about a young woman working as the personal assistant to a Hunter S. Thompson-like writer. She admitted that sometimes she was intimidated about making the transition from acting in films like “Boyhood” and “True Romance” to directing a low-budget film with a tight shooting schedule.
“I do know one thing about myself: that I have a killer f—ing work ethic,”,” Arquette said. “You give me that job. I’m going to kick ass with that job the best I can.”
Almodovar, the recipient of the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, made the trip to TIFF with his new short film “Strange Way of Life.” The Spanish auteur, whose films helped provide a platform for LGBTQ+ talent, was touched to be recognized, not just for his art, but for his advocacy. “It is an honor to think that my work has helped people and allowed society to be more fair, permissive, plural and free,” he said.
Almodovar noted that he was born under the leadership of Francisco Franco, but benefited from getting into the movie business right after the dictator died and democracy was starting to blossom. “I am proof the change operating in my country was real,” he said.
And Levy, a “Stranger Things” producer and the director of “Free Guy” and the upcoming Netflix series “All the Light We Cannot See,” was honored with the Norman Jewison Career Achievement Award. Before he grabbed his prize, he embraced presenter Taika Waititi in a big bear hug and engaged in some light-hearted ribbing. “When I heard Taika was going to present this, I figured it was 50-50 whether he would say my name in the speech, anything I’ve ever directed. It’s a beautiful wild card that you are Taika.”
Levy acknowledged how lucky he was to make art for a living. “It’s a privilege to work in a creative field,” he said. “And to be able to craft narratives that connect with and that are about connections with other humans. The fact that my movies and my shows have resonated for so many around the world…is more than a dream come true, because I never dreamed this. This is more than I dreamed. I just wanted to be able to do this job.”
Łukasz Żal, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of “Cold War” and “Ida,” received the TIFF Variety Artisan Award. He’s in the awards conversation once again for his work on “Zone of Interest.” “I was so privileged to work with such great directors,” Żal said, citing collaborators like Jonathan Glazer and Paweł Pawlikowski. “I learned so much from them. I learned that there is never a straight and easy way…[and] the most beautiful things can happen from a mistake… And I learned you should never compromise.”
Other honorees on Sunday included Carolina Markowicz, who is at the festival with her second feature, “Toll.” She received the TIFF Emerging Talent Award.
TIFF also made news of its own, announcing that it was rechristening its theater, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as the Viola Desmond Cinema after the Canadian civil and women’s rights activist. Shortly before the festival kicked off, Bell Canada, the telecommunications company that had been a long-standing sponsor of TIFF since 1995, announced it was ending its support.
The Awards night is TIFF’s largest annual fundraiser, raising $1.3 million in 2022. This year, the Tribute Awards gala will support the Viola Desmond Cinema campaign launched through the Every Story Fund in 2022. Past honorees include Oscar winners such as Jessica Chastain, Roger Deakins, Brendan Fraser, Anthony Hopkins, Joaquin Phoenix, Taika Waititi, Michelle Yeoh and Chloé Zhao.