"First of all I'm blessed," Lee tells ET's Nishcelle Turner of the honor. "At Morehouse [College], I made the decision, which changed my life, [that] I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I made that decision I said, I have to be able to build a body of work. I cannot be some okie dokie, rudy prue, one and done, flash in a pan."
With a career spanning decades, Lee's work of art includes poignant films like his directorial debut She's Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Chi-Raq (2015), BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020), among many others. He's also received numerous awards including an Oscar, a BAFTA Award, two Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards among many other accolades.
"My first feature film was in 1986, She's Gotta Have It, shot in 12 days, two six-day weeks, with people in front of, behind the camera, I'm still friends with," Lee recalls. "And I think that one of my biggest contributions, when all is said is done, when Spike Lee is dead and buried, it's gonna be of how many people of color I brought into the industry. How many people came through the family of not just the business, but the family of 40 Acres and a Mule, came in an industry that was not set up for them to be a part of."
"Many, at that time, many of the unions didn't want people of color in them," he continues. "So I think that's gonna be the biggest legacy, [that] people of color got to get in this industry, make a living, and do their art in front of and behind the camera."
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‘Malcolm X’: Spike Lee and Denzel Washington on Recreating History | rETro
Always a champion for telling Black stories and lifting up people of color, Lee still notes that there is a lot to be done.
"I know the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences put in some new rules which is cool, which some of those rules I still don't understand on diversity," he explains, adding that ultimately it's up to the "gatekeepers." "The gatekeepers are the individuals at the studios, at the networks, who decide what gets made and what doesn't get made. They have quarterly meetings, and the people in this rarified air have a green light vote. And very few people of color had that green light vote."
"Go online. Look at the pictures of the board of directors of the top 500 companies in America," he relays. "And I tell you that you will find the majority of these corporations are just white males. And a lot of these companies make billions of dollars from people of color."
His response on what to do? "We gotta take action," Lee says. "And vote with our pocketbook and our wallet."
Meanwhile, aside from celebrating his American Cinematheque Award, Lee is also celebrating his and wife Tonya's two children -- 26-year-old daughter, Satchel, and their 24-year-old son, Jackson -- being named this year's Golden Globe Ambassadors.
"I have to give all the credit to my beautiful wife, Tonya, for the development of our children, Satchel and Jackson," Lee praises. "There were many times where I was not in New York City. I was in another continent shooting films. I was away. So she gets all the credit."
ET also spoke with Lee's children after the announcement was made, where they opened up about following in their famous father's footsteps.
"I flirted with the idea of directing, I still don't know," Satchel admitted. "I enjoy working with actors, I enjoy being on set, I love the collaborative process, but I am more of a producer I would say."