Lee said he was “honored to be the first person of the African diaspora" chosen for the prestigious position. Festival organizer Thierry Fremaux said Lee is the first black president of any major film festival, calling the decision a “message of universality.” Speaking on France's RTL radio, Fremaux said it wasn't a political decision, but noted that black artists are underrepresented in the cinema world.
Many of Lee's films have been shown at Cannes, and his “BlacKkKlansman” won a major prize at Cannes two years ago. This year's festival runs May 12-23, and the rest of the jury members will be announced in April.
“When I got the call ... I was shocked, happy, surprised and proud all at the same time,” Lee said in a letter. He said Cannes "changed the trajectory of who I became in world cinema.” Several of Lee's films first screened at Cannes, including "Do the Right Thing" in 1989.
Without explicitly mentioning Lee's career-long fight against racism or other political views, the festival said Lee's “perspective is more valuable than ever” and that "Cannes is a natural homeland and a global sounding board for those who (re)awaken minds and question our stances and fixed ideas."
Ladj Ly, whose film “Les Miserables” echoes some of Lee's work and tackles tensions between police and minorities in a poor Paris suburb, hailed the move by festival organizers. “Les Miserables” screened at Cannes last year and won an Oscar nomination Monday for best international film.
The honorary president of French black rights group CRAN also welcomed the appointment of a filmmaker who confronts viewers and powers-that-be with strong opinions about discrimination and police violence.
“The arts world considers itself above questions of discrimination,” Louis-Georges Tin told The Associated Press. “But the #MeToo campaign showed that sexism is all too present in the arts world. And racism is too."
Tin expressed hope that Lee's role in Cannes could prompt the French cinema world to take a hard look at how it treats minorities and France's own colonial history. In French cinema, he said, “it’s always the blacks who make you laugh and Arabs who scare you."
Last year's Cannes jury president was Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu, and the festival's top prize went to Korean director Bong Joon-ho's “Parasite,” who was nominated this week for best international film at the Oscars.