At the 2023 TIFF Tribute Awards hosted at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto presenters Barry Jenkins and Chaz Ebert went off-script to emphasize how much it meant to hand the Ebert Director Award to Spike Lee. 

The Oscar-winning “Moonlight” director went first, sharing how he was one of two Black men in his film program at a predominantly white college. While his peer would say he wanted to be the next Spike Lee, he said, “‘I want to be the first Barry Jenkins,’ and I would qualify that by saying I think that’s the way Spike would want it.” In town serving as one of the judges for the festival’s Platform programming block, Jenkins continued, “So Spike I just wanted to say you’ve carried so much weight for so many of us for so damn long that I’m on this jury and I’m tired as hell. I shouldn’t be at this party drinking wine. But I wanted to thank you in front of all these folks because of the weight you carried.”

Following her co-presenter’s lead, Ebert took a break from her prepared speech to hold space for the historic moment that was in process. “It occurred to me when I was getting dressed this evening that in 30 years of the film festival, I’ve never been on an international stage at a festival that was headed by a Black man giving an award to an esteemed Black filmmaker along with another Black male filmmaker who is also esteemed, so we have to get Cameron Bailey. Come on up on this stage.”

The CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival would remain onstage as director Lee was finally called up to give his speech, where he reflected on the controversy surrounding “Do The Right Thing,” and the support he felt from critic Roger Ebert. “Your husband got behind me when those motherfuckers in the press were saying that ‘Do the Right Thing’ was going to incite Black people to riot,” said the filmmaker. “The struggle still continues.”

Afterward, during the dinner break, Lee held court near the stage, taking photos with attendees including the class of 2023 TIFF Rising Stars. On the event floor, Bailey said Chaz Ebert naming the moment, and inviting him on stage, nearly brought him to tears. “It was very moving because I know the history of each one of those people and what it meant for us to be together.”

Pedro Almodovar accepts the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media presented by Participant from David Linde at the TIFF Tribute Gala during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival held at the Royal York Hotel on September 10, 2023 in Toronto, Canada.
Pedro Almodóvar accepts the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media presented by Participant from David Linde at the TIFF Tribute Gala during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.Michael Buckner for Variety

Other highlights from the event in which proceeds go towards supporting the Viola Desmond Cinema campaign, the Canadian civil rights pioneer the organization intends to rename the main cinema at TIFF’s headquarters after, include a speech from Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award winner Patricia Arquette, at the festival with her directorial debut “Gonzo Girl.” While describing the challenges of making the independent project starring Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone, who were both on hand to present Arquette the award, she said she heard a voice say “I give you these opportunities so you’ll take them.” She added, “I do know one thing about myself, that I have a killer fucking work ethic. You give me that job, I’m going to kick ass with that job the best I can.”

Tribute Performer Award winner Colman Domingo, currently predicted to be in the 2024 Oscar race with two films at the festival, “Rustin” and “Sing Sing,” talked about his work being an act of service. “Anything that I do or touch, it really is at the core—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,” said the actor. “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.”

Director Pedro Almodóvar was the only Tribute Award winner to explicitly mention the ongoing SAG strike. As he closed the show accepting the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, he said “I hope they find solutions for everybody involved.” Mentioning his upbringing in Spain, at the end of the reign of dictator Francisco Franco, Almodóvar said he shared his award with “Critical Zone” director Ali Ahmadzadeh, an Iranian dissident who recently won the Golden Leopard honor for best film at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival. 

“Cinema is the best tool to document one country’s social reality, even if it is done through fiction,” said the “Strange Way of Life” director. “All my work is born out of the absence of censorship, both legal and personal and I would like to dedicate this award to all these colleagues who are suffering from it nowadays, as well as to send them a message of support.”

Other awardees included prolific, Canadian-born producer and director Shawn Levy, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” actress Vicky Krieps, “The Zone of Interest” cinematographer Łukasz Żal, and “Toll” director Carolina Markowicz.

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