For Black History Month, Spike Lee spoke to a crowd of over 700 on Thursday night in the Events Center about the movies he’s directed, his experience making them and his own college experience.
Nikki Giovanni also canceled her appearance as Binghamton’s Black History Month keynote speaker. The poet was scheduled to speak in the Mandela Room next week. The Black Student Union is trying to arrange another speaker to come instead. However, the speaker will probably not come in the month of February, said Ridwan Olatilewa, BSU’s vice president. BSU may also choose to save the money it raised and book another high-profile speaker next year, Olatilewa said.
For Lee’s talk, BSU put up a small stage at the end of the basketball court, facing the bleachers, where the audience sat. “Between 700 and 800 people got tickets,” Olatilewa said, and the venue provided ample breathing space compared to the crammed Lecture Hall of about 500 people who heard Stephen A. Smith speak for Black History Month last year. Lee’s talk was free to the public, and sponsored by Campus Activities; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Multicultural Resource Center; and the Student Association Vice President for Multicultural Affairs’ office.
Lee, in jeans and a Nike cardigan, spoke about his childhood in Fort Greene and Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, where his family moved after he was born in Georgia. (His mother bought a Fort Greene brownstone for $40,000 in 1968; it’s now worth millions.)
“We were the first black family to move to Cobble Hill where, at that time, was a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood,” Lee said. “Cobble was right by the docks, and historically — at least in Brooklyn — the dock work was Italian-American.”
When he was younger, Lee didn’t have his eyes set on filmmaking. He wanted to play second base for the New York Mets, but wasn’t a good enough athlete. Instead, he went off to the historically black Morehouse College to study liberal arts.
“When it came time to go to college, it was expected I’d go to Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia,” Lee said. “My father went to Morehouse, my grandfather went to Morehouse, and my mother and grandmother went to Spelman College, which was across the street.”
Lee marveled that his grandmother was able to go to college — her own grandmother was a slave. His grandmother lived to be 100 years old, and helped finance his education at Morehouse, and later New York University film school, by saving up her social security checks. Now, Lee teaches third-year graduate students in the film program at NYU.
At John Dewey High School, Lee was an “average student,” but he struggled academically in his first two years at Morehouse. Right before the summer of his junior year, he met with his college adviser, who told him to “think long and hard in choosing a major,” because he’d used up all his electives.
That summer, in 1977, everything changed for Lee. Historically, it was the hottest summer in New York City on record — a setting used for “Do the Right Thing” a dozen years later. It was also the height of stagflation, when New York City’s economy was doing poorly, and Lee couldn’t find a summer job. With nothing to do, Lee decided one day to visit his friend Vietta Johnson, a day he calls “one of the most important days of my life.”
“A spirit told me, ‘go see Vietta,’” Lee said. Johnson had a Super 8 camera she wasn’t using, as well as a box of film. She gave them to Lee, and told him to “go out and shoot stuff.”
“I didn’t find film; film found me,” Lee said. He shot footage of the growing disco scene — “DJs were hooking up their turntables, their speakers to streetlamps; the dance was the hustle” — but soon found something more interesting to shoot.
The summer of 1977 was also the summer of a massive blackout, in July, when looters took to the streets.
“My father drove me to all the looting places. Choice items were air conditioners, color TVs, the Walt Frazier Pumas — white leather with the foam thing — and Pampers,” Lee said. “And I had all this footage.”
He took all that footage back to Morehouse, and a professor told him to assemble it into a story. After two semesters of work, “Last Hustle in Brooklyn” was finished. He showed it to his class, and they liked it.
“And that’s when it hit me, that I’m going to tell hopefully truthful stories about African American existence in this country,” Lee said. “I was very, very clear that some of these images might not all be positive, which I got criticized a lot for. But that didn’t matter. The truth was more important.”
Lee had harsh words for images he said Hollywood perpetuated, of an “almighty white race,” compared to the images Hollywood depicted of minorities, like the Native Americans in old John Ford and “Tarzan” movies. He made “Bamboozled,” a fictional film about a contemporary minstrel show, to combat the pervasive dehumanizing imagery.
“Film is a very powerful medium,” Lee said. “It can build people up, or destroy people. It’s always been my position that the reason why the United States is the most powerful country on this Earth is not because we have more nuclear arms — a nuclear bomb never influenced someone how to dress, how to talk, how to dance. You can go all over the world and see the impact of American culture.”
Lee’s movies aren’t just about race — he’s made over 30 films, about a wide range of subjects — but he does think a lot about diversity in front and behind of the camera. “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee’s first feature film, came out in 1986, a year when it was just one of two films with black female leads, he said. Later in his career, Lee gave actors like Halle Berry and Rosie Perez their first film roles. Even today, Lee said, there’s a dearth of opportunities for people of color to show the world their talent on camera.
“It has been my charge to show alternative visions of the African American experience in America,” Lee said. “The more imagery we have, the less of a weight one character has. There’s no way one character is going to carry the whole race. We’re too complex for that. That’s one of the problems. Black people are not a monolithic group.”