Before talking to college students and visitors at Chicago State University during a recent lecture, filmmaker and rabid New Yorker Spike Lee took a friendly dig at Chicago’s favorite sports team.
“Where were the Bears,” he asked, while wearing a Victor Cruz jersey – the wide receiver was a key contributor to the New York Giants’ Super Bowl winning season.
But Lee didn’t come to town to talk football but to talk about films and filmmaking. Chicago State hosted Lee on Feb. 8, for the university’s “Revolutions, Reels & Rhythms” lecture series for Black History Month. Lee was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation by the full house packed in the school’s 2,000-seat Jacoby Dickens Center gymnasium.
The 54-year-old’s career spans more than two decades and includes such renowned films as Do The Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) and Four Little Girls (1997). Along with filmmaking, Lee addressed other topics, including the importance of education, and the need to revamp the value system in black American culture.
“We’ve got to start taking education more seriously as a people and as a nation. Education is key,” said Lee, a third generation Morehouse College graduate and a 15-year teacher of film at New York University.
Born in Atlanta, Lee’s family lived briefly in Chicago when he was child before relocating to New York, which Lee calls home. In his lecture at Chicago State, Lee said there is a generation gap in black culture’s attitude toward education. He noted that as a young man, his generation never ridiculed someone for being smart.
“If you got straight A’s and spoke correct English, you got as much respect for that as the brothers who were athletes or the brothers who could talk to the ladies. That is different today,” he said.
Smart students today, he added, are made fun of and called a “white boy” or “white girl,” a “sellout,” and even “Oreo.”
“If you’re on the corner,” Lee noted, “drinking a 40 oz. of that malt crack liquor, smoking a joint, holding your privates; pants dropped below your waist – then you’re hip, you’re black, you’re gangster…but what you really are is ignorant. And the crime is they don’t even know they’re ignorant.”
Concerning his film career, Lee talked about the self-reliance needed to be an independent, black filmmaker. Lee recalled the making of Malcolm X, his biopic about the slain black leader. He praised Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of X, and discussed his own resolve about not winning an Oscar for the movie.
“He took a year to prepare for that role,” Lee recalled. “Denzel is a great actor, if not the greatest actor, not because of his good looks, but because he is smart. Despite not winning the Academy Award, that is one of the greatest performances ever.”
“And the most important lesson I got from that,” Lee added, “is that I will never put myself in a position for someone to determine what is good and what isn’t good. After that I said that I don’t care what the Academy says.”
Lee’s upcoming film, Red Hook Summer, which he financed himself, is set to be released this August.