The filmmaker said he was ”honoured to be the first person of the African diaspora” chosen for the prestigious position in the festival’s 73-year history.
Festival organisers hope Lee will “shake things up” among the world’s cinema elite at the event, which runs from May 12 to 23.
Anti-racism campaigners, meanwhile, hope Lee’s appointment will wake up the French cultural world to persistent discrimination and the damaging stereotypes it perpetuates.
“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.”
Speaking on France’s RTL radio, festival organiser Thierry 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. The rest of the jury members will be announced in April.
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 organisers. 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 Lee’s appointment.
“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 Inarritu, 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.
Additional reporting by agencies