Steve McQueen and Harry Belafonte at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Monday night. Image courtesy of StarPix

[Update: Deadline Hollywood reports that NYFCC issued an apology today from its Chair Joshua Rothkopf that reads in part: “On behalf of the New York Film Critics Circle, I apologize sincerely for the crass bit of heckling Mr. McQueen encountered. I’m mortified to learn that this was from one of our own members. We are taking disciplinary action. I’m especially pained that this occurred in your case. Rarely do we receive thank-you notes, as Steve sent us after the vote. Moreover, his speech showed a deep understanding of the history of our award winners: an honored group in which he stands as an equal.”]

Less than a week after Harry Belafonte made headlines condemning the practice of stop and frisk with a speech at the inauguration of New York's new mayor Bill de Blasio, the award-winning actor and activist gave a stirring speech introducing director Steve McQueen last night at the 79th annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards at the Edison Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Belafonte's moving tribute to McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and the power of cinema—for both good and bad—received a standing ovation and sent Twitter ablaze.

The 87 year-old Belafonte recalled D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) as an early cornerstone of cinema's influence, noting the film's artistic breakthroughs, while also acknowledging that it inflamed racial hatred. The room fell silent as he wove the history of African Americans in the early 20th century with his own personal story in the wake of that film and its account of the post-Civil War American South.

“Though [Steve McQueen] isn't American, he's of America,” said Belafonte. “[12 Years a Slave] answers the charge made in Birth of a Nation. In the film, Steve steps in and shows us through the depth of cinema an ennobling way who we are… For the first time in the history of cinema, [the film] gives a sense of who we are as Americans and the great promise of who we can be in the future.”

Listen to Harry Belafonte's speech:

His words were not universally felt in the room, however. NYFCC's tribute to McQueen, which came near the end of the evening, was marred by a heckler who shouted at the stage.

“Fuck you, you're a garbage man and a door man,” the heckler apparently said from the back of the room. The disturbance came from a table hosted by NYFCC member Armond White, a noted detractor of McQueen's film. Throughout the evening, apparently drunken guests at the table taunted honorees including Jared Leto. After the ceremony, there appeared to be some confusion as to who the spoiler was, though Variety reported it was CityArts editor Armond White, himself. Others said it was guests at White's table. For his part, McQueen continued with his speech and either did not hear the taunts or simply ignored them.

NYFCC honorees Jared Leto, Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford on Monday night at the Edison Ballroom in New York. Image courtesy of StarPix

“It's incredible what you can do when you put on a pair of red heels,” joked Jared Leto who received Best Supporting Actor kudos from NYFCC for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. In the film, he plays an HIV-positive transgender woman who teams up with an unlikely ally (played by Matthew McConaughey) to import life-preserving drugs to combat the disease. Leto said he was moved to play the part after a six-year absence from feature films and thanked his mother, who was his date for the evening. “My mom is a shining example of the possibilities in life,” said Leto. “She wasn't born into luxury… [but] she made a life for  herself and, in turn, made a life for me.”

Sally Hawkins introduced Best Actress honoree Cate Blanchett, praising her Blue Jasmine counterpart Monday evening. “I saw Cate as a warrior, tearing her [character] inside-up and upside-down. [She] was fearless,” Hawkins said. Accepting, Blanchett said her NYFCC nod is “really an ensemble award” and somewhat jokingly praised director Woody Allen for his casting gifts. “He is, nevertheless, not here tonight,” she said to laughter.

Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler. Image courtesy of StarPix

Best Actor honoree Robert Redford recalled his roots as a theater actor in early 60s New York, remembering how critics brought him back down to earth when he appeared in his first play. The Oscar winner and Sundance Institute founder told how he thought his early stage experience was troubled during rehearsals, but felt relief when it received applause opening night. He even heard that former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was in the audience in tears, but at the party following, critics' reviews came in, offering a sobering take. “A bomb was dropped in the form of a play,” Redford said to more laughs. Redford, who was honored for his role in J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, praised the filmmaker for “bringing him back to his roots.”

Ryan Coogler has won praise for his first feature Fruitvale Station, which won the top narrative and audience film prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in addition to two awards at the Gothams last month. The New York Film Critics Circle selected Fruitvale Station for its Best First Film prize. The movie tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot dead in a BART train station on New Year's Eve while returning from San Francisco to Oakland. “Through you critics, so many people could hear about Oscar's story, so thank you,” Coogler said.

Blue Is the Warmest Color star Adèle Exarchopoulos at NYFCC. Image courtesy of StarPix

Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color not only won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, but the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, gave an unprecedented Palme d'Or to its two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. NYFCC selected the film, which had its U.S. Premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival, as its Best Foreign Language Film. Blue is the story of a young woman's tumultuous relationship as she transitions from a teenager to an adult. “I'm here representing Abel and it's complicated,” said Exarchopoulos from the stage, after admitting to being a bit nervous. “We wanted to make a movie about freedom and about how someone can change your life with a look and how passion can destroy you.”