Lee will be the first black person to lead the jury in the festival’s 73-year history. Last year’s president was Alejandro Iñárritu, the Mexican director of “Birdman.”
In a statement released by the festival, Lee said he “was shocked, happy, surprised and proud all at the same time.”
“In this life I have lived, my biggest blessings have been when they arrived unexpected,” he added.
Lee’s relationship with Cannes started in 1986, when “She’s Gotta Have It,” his debut feature about a young black woman and her relationships with three men, won the festival’s Youth Prize for best young director.
Reporting from that festival for The New York Times, Larry Rohter said the film was received so warmly “that some enthusiastic French critics have already begun talking about Lee as a ‘black Woody Allen,’ perhaps because of his sense of humor and his loving treatment of New York City.”
“Do The Right Thing” appeared in the festival’s main competition in 1989, and many critics felt it should have won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. (In 2017, Lee told the audience at a charity gala in Cannes that he had been “robbed” when the prize was given instead to Steven Soderbergh for “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”)
Lee has returned to Cannes many times since then, but he has never won the Palme d’Or. He came closest in 2018, when his film “BlacKkKlansman” — based on the real story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s — won the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-highest honor.
“BlacKkKlansman” was widely seen as a comeback for Lee. The director made headlines at the festival not just for the movie, but for a furious, expletive-filled news conference in which he criticized President Donald Trump and accused him of stoking racial tensions in the United States.
“To me, the Cannes Film Festival (besides being the most important film festival in the world — no disrespect to anybody) has had a great impact on my film career,” Lee said in his statement. “You could easily say Cannes changed the trajectory of who I became in world cinema.”
Pierre Lescure, the festival’s president, and Thierry Frémaux, its artistic director, praised Lee in a joint statement. “Spike Lee’s perspective is more valuable than ever,” they said. “Cannes is a natural homeland and a global sounding board for those who (re)awaken minds and question our stances and fixed ideas. Lee’s flamboyant personality is sure to shake things up.”
The festival runs May 12-23.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .