Accepting the Ebert Director Award from Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins and late film critic Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz Ebert, the 66-year-old praised the film journalist as one of his biggest supporters.
"Your husband was very crucial [in] my career. He was very crucial, 1989 in Cannes, to Do the Right Thing," Lee told a visibly emotional Chaz on stage at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York hotel, after she went off script and told a personal anecdote about the impact Lee, Jenkins, and festival head Cameron Bailey had on her as a Black woman. "Your husband got behind me because there was motherf---ers, excuse my language, in the press saying that Do the Right Thing was gonna incite Black people to riot, that this film should not be shown in the United States, that Black people riot, see the film, take to the streets. This film should not be shown, at least not let it come out in the summer. And the great Tom Pollock says, 'Spike, we're releasing the film on June 30th.'"
After noting that "the film came out, there were no riots," Lee went on to explain his frustration with the way his project — about racial tensions that culminate in tragedy amid a long-standing feud between Italian-American and Black residents in Brooklyn — was received versus other more egregious and explicit movies.
Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Spike Lee at the 2023 TIFF Tribute Awards
"So the struggle still continues. It's not an even playing field. We gotta keep, keep getting on. And I remember, I know it was a long time ago and you should let some grudges go, but David Denby and Joe Klein wrote articles, New York Magazine saying, 'Hope to God that this film does not open in your neighborhood.' That this film, Do the Right Thing, will incite Black people to tear s--- up, to take to the streets like Detroit in '77 or Newark in 1968. So thank you everyone. Thank Roger because he went to bat for me and many years later, we're on the right side of history/herstory. Thank you very much."
In an email to EW on Monday, Denby pointed to his original review, saying, "It's not a pan; I thought a lot of it was generous and alive. I objected to something at the end, but I didn't say the movie was going to start riots." He continued, "I don't know what Spike is talking about. I wrote it up thoughtfully as a movie critic. What Joe Klein wrote, he did as a political analyst. I didn't co-ordinate with him. Spike has lumped us together. What I'm sorry about is not the review but that Spike has never made anything as powerful since then."
He also said that Lee asked him to speak at a class the director was teaching at Harvard a few years later, but that he didn't go. "I praised many of his subsequent films," Denby noted.
Klein did not immediately respond to EW's request for comment.
Moviestore/Shutterstock 'Do the Right Thing'
Since its release 34 years ago, Do the Right Thing is often cited among the best movies ever made. It also earned Lee his first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He'd later win his first competitive Academy Award in 2019 for writing the adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, three years after receiving an honorary Oscar at the 2016 ceremony.
Watch Lee discuss Do the Right Thing at the TIFF Tribute Awards in the video above.
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