Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spike Lee in Person, Part I: The Lecture

Spike Lee at VCU (photo from vcu.edu)
The coolest thing happened to me last week. As I was leaving work last Thursday, I got online and noticed two tweets from Spike Lee, saying he was about to speak at VCU. Pessimistically assuming VCU meant anything other than what it inevitably did, I Googled to confirm, and sure enough, Spike Lee was going to be speaking at my alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, that evening.

The event was sold out, but at the literal last minute, a very kind professor took pity on me and gave me an extra ticket he had. Genuinely, it was one of the kindest, most random acts I’ve ever been privy too.

As a journalist, it’s muscle memory that when I sit in a large ballroom and am waiting for someone important to speak, I pull out whatever recording device I have (in this case, my iPhone) and record the audio of what is about to take place. And damn, am I glad I did.

The evening was split into two parts: an hour-long lecture of sorts by Lee, and an hour and 15 minutes of question and answer. Considering how long the lecture formed itself in print, it’ll be better to split Lee’s time at VCU into two posts. What follows below are often hilarious and continually controversial highlights from Lee’s lecture.

For added context, it’s important to note that there were roughly 500 people in attendance, most of who were young, black college students. And that is precisely the group Lee targeted the majority of his remarks toward. Tomorrow, I’ll post a verbatim transcription of the Q&A. Enjoy!

Photo from vcu.edu

Highlights from Spike Lee Lecture
VCU Campus – Richmond, VA
Feb. 21, 2013

Spike Lee likes to cut right to the heart of things, through humor mixed with lacerating truth.
Welcome to Black History Month. The shortest month of the year. [Ecstatic laughter.]

Lee nearly flunked out of college before realizing filmmaking was his calling.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker. My friends and I went to the movies every Saturday to see a double matinee. We’d eat all the candy and popcorn, drink all the soda, throw stuff at the screen, try not to get thrown out of the theater – and that was it. But even at that early age, I knew that what I saw looking out of my window in Brooklyn was not evident in movies or on TV. And that was alarming. Black culture was not evident.

But either way, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up. It was expected I go to college, because I come from a long line of edumacated black folks. [Laughter.] My father went to Morehouse [College, in Atlanta]. He was a couple of years behind Dr. King at The ‘House. My grandfather went to Morehouse, and my mother and grandmother went to Spelman [College, also in Atlanta].

When it came time for me to go to college, I had to go to Morehouse, but I didn’t know what I was gonna do. Now, this is a cautionary tale: I almost flunked out of Morehouse. I was a C- student. D+/C- student for my first two years. It wasn’t because I wasn’t intelligent. It’s because I was not motivated. I had no extra initiative. I was only doing what the teacher asked me to do. Barely. Just floating.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was going back to Brooklyn for the summer, but before I left, my college advisor told me to think long and hard about what I wanted to do in my junior year. She told me I had to choose a major because I had exhausted all of my electives. So I left for New York, thinking about what I wanted to do.

Lee’s first film camera befell him by chance, and he used it solely to relieve boredom.
No one could get jobs that summer. New York was in a bad spot. So I had no income coming in. But I had a friend, and we were hanging out. She was smarter than all the rest of us – and I likededed her. [Laughter.] I likededed her, but she didn’t likededed me. You might have heard that in some of my films!

Anyway. We were cool. And one day I was at her house, just chillin’, and there was this box on the floor. And inside was a Super 8 camera and a box of film. I asked her if I could see it and she said I could have it. So now I had something to do. I just spent the whole summer running around New York City, shooting stuff with a Super 8 camera. Not because I wanted to be a filmmaker, but because I had nothing else to do.

Photo from time.com

It just so happens that Lee picked a damn iconic summer to randomly film the streets of New York.
It was the summer of 1977. It was the first summer of disco, so everyone was having block parties with DJs – there was the hustle, music, all that. And also, it was one of the hottest summers on record in New York, and there was a blackout. So when the blackout happened, all the black folks and Puerto Ricans went crazy and started looting. Looting on 125th Street, Harlem. Looting on Fulton Street, Bed-Stuy – so I filmed all that stuff.

And on top of all that, there was a psychopath named David Berkowitz [aka the Son of Sam] who had all of white New York terrified. Now the reason I say “white New York” is because in 1977, gentrification had not happened, so if the Son of Sam tried to do that stuff in Harlem or Bed-Stuy, he would of stood out! Not today, but ’77… he would’ve gotten a beat down coming into Harlem. [Laughter.]

Lee says he didn’t discover film, but rather, it discovered him.
Summer’s done and I go back to school and declare myself a Mass Communications major. I told my film professor what I had filmed over the summer, and he said he wanted to see it. He told me I should do something with it, but I didn’t know what to do. All the footage was just in a box. He told me I should cut a film out of it.

So, once or twice a week, when it was time for my professor to go home to his wife and kids, he would stay an extra three or fours hours and help me cut and edit the film.  Second semester: I ended up showing this film, which I called Last Hustle Brooklyn, to my class, and it was amazing. I got laughs where I wanted laughs – I got the exact emotion I was going for, when I wanted it.

People always ask: “When did you discover film?” I didn’t, film discovered me.

Lee frequently transitions from personal life stories, to dead serious life lessons, often without warning.
I went from being a D+/C- student to an A+ student. Even in the classes that weren’t Mass Comm: A+. Because now I was motivated. So when I speak to beautiful, young, intelligent minds, like you all here tonight, I tell them that hopefully they have chosen a major that you love. Listen to what I’m saying, people.

I haven’t done a scientific study or anything, but I’d say 90 percent of people on this Earth go to their grave slaving at a job they hate. Every goddamn morning you have to wake up and go to the goddamn job you hate. You don’t want to be there, they don’t want your ass there either. But you’re in a union so they can’t fire your ass. [Heavy laughter.] You get a check, you get joy from your children, but other than that, you’re not living.

I’m blessed because I love what I’m doing. The key is to get a job that you love. If you love your job, then it’s not a job! When I shoot a film, or commercial, or music video – whatever, we start at 6 in the morning. I don’t need a motherfuckin’ alarm clock, I get up at 4:30 like I got shot out of the canon. It’s because I’m getting ready to do something I love. If you have a job you hate, you need a crane to get out of bed. You’re going to find every excuse to stay in bed and not go to work.

For the young heads in the audience, you’re in a very pivotal moment in your lives. What you decide here will influence the rest of your life.

Although Lee mostly spoke to the black college students in the room, he wasn’t afraid to give parents some tough love as well.
Now, when I told people I wanted to make films, they said,  “You crazy. Ain’t no black people making movies. You better get you a good job.”

I didn’t listen. Number one, I had a family around me who supported me. My father is a jazz musician, he’s done a lot of the scores for my films, and my mother taught black art, so I grew up in a very artistic household. Unfortunately there are a lot of black folks who, when their children tell them they want to do something with the arts, they say “Nahhhh. As long as you’re black, living in my home, eating my food, wearing my clothes, then you’re going to get a real damn job.”

Now that’s a tough spot. And it’s very rare to be able to stand up to that parental pressure. So you succumb to it. And that’s why I say parents kill more dreams than anybody. And it’s not because they’re evil, or Nazis… or the Klan, since we’re here in Virginia. [Nervous laughter mixed with groans.]

Oooohhhhh, come on. What about Nat Turner? What about Thomas Jefferson, pedophile? [Louder nervous laughter.]

How old was Sally Hemings [a mixed race slave Thomas Jefferson inherited through marriage]?! Fourteen! Fourteen!


It’s not because parents are evil. It’s because they think they know what’s better. If you can be strong enough, don’t succumb. Choose a major you want to do. If your parents want you to get a job based on how much money it makes, then open a newspaper and show them some rich Wall Street guy who just jumped out of a building. Money doesn’t equate to happiness.

Lee’s first few films were funded by his own grandmother.
Me, I had the blessing to be supported by my family, especially my grandmother. My grandmother lived to be 100 years old. Her mother was a slave. Yet my grandmother was still a college graduate. She taught art for 50 years. Vincent Van Gogh was her favorite. And for 50 years, she saved her social security checks for the education of her grandchildren. And since I was the oldest, I got first dibs.

My grandmother put me through Morehouse, she put me through NYU film school, she gave me the seed money for thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, and She’s Gotta Have It.

We all need support. Sometimes parents and relatives don’t understand that. And I myself have had to think about that as a parent. I have a son, and when he told me he wanted to play ice hockey… I said “Waiiiit a minutue.” [Laughter.] But, my wife and I let him play, because that’s what he wanted. But after the third concussion, that was it for ice hockey.

Lee & Ernest Dickerson (right) setting up a shot on Do the Right Thing

“It was at NYU where I became a filmmaker.”
When I graduated college, I knew I had to go in the back way to the business, through independent films. At that time, there was only one African American director working, Michael Schultz, who directed a lot of hit films with Richard Pryor. So I did my research and applied to the top three film schools: AFI, USC, and NYU. To get into AFI and USC, you needed an astronomical score on the GRE [Graduate Record Exam]. I took that test, and I did not get that astronomical score. [Laughter.] Lucky for me, the GRE was not required for NYU. I applied, and I got in.

And it was at NYU where I became a filmmaker. When you’re in film school, you don’t take tests. You’re graded on your films. And if you’re not working on your films, you’re working on your classmate’s films. I was very fortunate to hook up with Ernest Dickerson. He shot all my films at NYU, then he shot She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and after X, he became a director. Now he’s one of the top episodic directors on TV.

Now, there were 50 of us in that NYU film class, and four of us were black. Two dropped out, so Ernest and I were the only two black students who finished in our class.

Lee’s memories of his beloved upbringing of street games mixed with culture is what fuels his contempt for modern public school curriculum.
Ernest’s mother and my mother had told us the same thing since we were 8-years-old: We could not be as good as our white students. We had to be 10 times better. I would ask my mother, “Why? It’s not fair.” And she would say, “I know it’s not fair, that’s the way it is.” So growing up, I could never understand why my mother was always on my ass. If I got an A, she would say, “You should’ve gotten an A+.”

Now if you’ve seen Crooklyn, that is an autobiographic film of my family growing up in Brooklyn. So growing up, we didn’t like my mother a lot. She would never let us do anything. My father’s idea of parenting was: “Hey dad, can I go jump out the window?” “Sure, but don’t hurt yourself.” [Laughter.]

So when one parent takes that extreme, then the other is forced to be the bad guy. That was my mother. And she had to. She had five crazy kids who would’ve run the house down without her. So she would drag me to galleries. She would drag me to plays, and movies. And although I never wanted to go, I always ended up liking what I say. It was all about that early exposure to arts. And it wasn’t just me: my brother’s a photographer, my sister acts, my other brother is a videographer – we were all exposed to arts at a very young age.

And it’s ridiculous what’s going on in American today. You have kids going to public school and there are no art classes. No painting, no music, nothing. And no gym! No gym? When I was growing up, you had to play an instrument. You had to take art. You had to take gym. You know what physical activity today is? [Mimics playing a video game.] I hate these video games. When I grew up, you ran up and down the block. In baseball season, you played baseball or stickball. Football season, you played two-hand touch. Basketball was year round. No video games. Outside. Exercise. Human interaction.

All these street games have been lost because of video games. So we’re getting young kids who are obese, know no music, and know nothing about art.

“And it gets deeper when we talk about the African-American community.”
Half of all African-American males today do not finish high school. Half! There are more African-American men incarcerated than enrolled in college. Another damning stat: three out of four African-American families are headed by a single mom. That’s 75 percent. So these young brothers growing up, willin’ out, no father at home, they look for father figures elsewhere, and that’s not a good look. For the young sisters growing up, they see daddy’s not home and that affects their relationships with black men.

There’s a direct correlation between the school dropout rate and the prison population. On top of that, you have the impact of media. Through film, music, some rap videos, TV – we’re going through a dumbing down syndrome, where ignorance is championed, and education is made fun of.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and I can say this for my generation and the generation before me: we never, ever, ever made fun of someone who was smart. We never made fun of someone who spoke correct English or got straight A’s. You got as much love for your intellect as someone else would for their athletic prowess, or their ability to talk to girls. They’re all equal! Everyone has their strengths. [Laughs.]

You would never be ridiculed for being smart. That’s not the case today. And I can really pin point this, I call it BC and AC: before crack and after crack. [Laughs.] Not funny. That’s not funny. There have always been drugs in the African-American community, but crack made people lose their souls.  Heroin addicts still raise their families; crack heads abandon their families. What we see now is the residue of the crack generation of people whose young minds were led to devices that didn’t allow them to grow up. And with the negative influence of some rap, it just made that more deadly. And I say deadly because, when we have young black people growing and they equate intelligence with being white, and black as being ignorant, that’s genocide. Straight up.

If you ridicule someone because they speak correct English and get straight A’s, if you say to them: “You tryin’ be white, you a sellout.” That isn’t right. But conversely, if you’re on the corner, drinking a 40, smoking a joint, holding your nuts, then you down. You gangster. No. You’re really ignorant. But the thing is they don’t know they’re ignorant! And people don’t call it out.

Lil Wayne and Lee at the 2011 NBA All-Star game (photo from Zimbo)
Lee certainly didn’t hesitate to call it out, crying afoul in regards to recent controversial lyrics from popular rapper, Lil Wayne.
Now, my wife told me not to say this, but I just don’t understand Lil motherfuckin’ Wayne. [Explosive applause.]

I don’t care how many cough syrup bottles he’s drunk, How. Can. You. Talk. About. Emmett Till like that?!

[Lee is referring to a recently leaked remix of rapper Future’s song “Karate Chop,”  in which Lil Wayne can be heard saying he’s going to “Beat that p--sy up like Emmett Till.” The track provoked immediate outrage from the black community, namely Till’s family, who sent Wayne an open letter, damning the lyric. In 1955, the 14-year-old, African-American Till was beaten, tortured, and murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s murder is said to have provoked the African-American Civil Rights Movement in America.]

[Lee is screaming. Loud.] Does he know who Emmett Till is?! How can we do this?! This shit ain’t cool. And all of you are still buying his records, and say, “Well… I like the beat.” No! There are some things that are sacred. We cannot make a mockery of the people who died in order for us to elect a second term African-American President. To me, saying [what Wayne said] is inconceivable. How can your lips even form to say those words?!

And he’s not the only one. We’re walking around like we’re crazy. Malcolm X got assassinated today, 48 years ago. Forty-eight years ago today, Malcolm X was assassinated… so we could make a mockery of Emmett Till? He didn’t die for that bullshit.

“We’re making fun of black people because they’re educated? That shit is backwards.”
[Lee is calmer now.] We have got to get smarter. I urge you to not succumb to that peer pressure. Don’t give a fuck what anybody says, and get your grades. Get your grades. Get your grades. And let’s be honest now, there was a time, when you couldn’t come to VCU, and it wasn’t that long ago either. It wasn’t that long ago that George Wallace stood at the entrance to the University of Alabama to stop James Hood and Vivian Malone from attending school. It wasn’t that long ago.

If you go back three generations, your ancestors are slaves. It’s not that long ago. It was against the law for slaves to read or write. If you got caught, three things could happen: you get whipped, castrated, or hung. My ancestors knew that education would be one of the ways to get us out of slavery. So how is it that our ancestors risked life and limb for an education, and today, here we are, 2013, and we’re making fun of black people because they’re educated? That shit is backwards. We gotta stop it. Education is everything, and whatever we have to do, we have to try and make it cool again. We have to, because right now, it isn’t.

So, after that tirade, we’re going to open it up for some questions. But we’re going to set a few ground rules.

Check back tomorrow for Lee’s rules (all of which he himself broke), and his perfectly Spike Lee-appropriate answers in response to several insightful questions


  1. Wow... that's awesome. Going to a lecture to see Spike Lee.

    Sometime around April in Atlanta which is currently having a celebration in Mexican arts and films. Carlos Reygadas is going to do a Q&A after a screening of his new film. I'm hoping to attend the event and also hopefully see Japon. That is the one film by Reygadas I hope to see other than the new one and a short he did for an anthology film.

    1. Yeah dude, it was like a dream come true. Totally unexpected but wow, whatta moment.

      Hope you have the chance to attend the Reygadas Q&A. Would you ask him anything?

    2. I don't know. Maybe about his collaboration with sound designer Martin Hernandez who is simply the busiest sound designer in Mexico who also works for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro.

    3. Damn, that'd make for a great, unique question. Had no idea one guy did the sound for all those directors. Busy indeed.

  2. Okay, I left blogging for a while for time restrictions among other things, but this is just too brilliant. As a young black female filmmaker, this has hit so many levels for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this, Alex.

    1. Wow, my goodness, your comment just made my week. I'm really glad you enjoyed the article, it was my pleasure to write it. Like Spike said: stay motivated and keep working toward your dream!

    2. Hey Alex (I <3 Movies) ... I just wanted you to know I've missed you. :-) Hope you'll find time to blog again from time to time.

  3. Recently i've gotten kind of annoyed with Lee going on about Django, but i do agree with his thoughts here. Although as a gamer myself i wasn't a fan of his dig at video games

    1. *Smile* I come from a family of gamers, so that wasn't my favorite bit, either. Ah, well ... one of my all time favorite quotes (attributed to Aristotle): "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." ;-) We can appreciate what the man has to say without agreeing with all of it.

    2. Julian: Glad you liked most of Lee's remarks. But man, if you've been annoyed with his Django comments, just wait until my post tomorrow. Dude is ANGRY at that film.

    3. Steph: Couldn't agree more. I think the only person who fully agrees with Spike Lee 100 percent of the time, is Spike Lee.

    4. Indeed. I do understand wanting kids to have some sort of physical activity when they are younger, but i believe you can have both in a kids life. I don't think it has to be a either/or situation.

  4. Wow ... what a speech! Thanks for taking the time to transcribe it, and I linked it to my Facebook page to make sure folks over there got a chance to see this.

    I especially appreciated his life story (fascinating!) the bit about finding your passion.

    1. Thank YOU for reading it AND posting it on your Facebook page. That's really nice of you :)

      He is a passionate man, isn't he?

  5. Alex, I want to sincerely thank you for posting this. This is the best thing I've ever read on your site, and trust me, that's saying a lot.

    I an English teacher in the inner-city (often times, the only white person in the room). I want my students to read this in the worst way...I may even take a few snippets here and there, only so that I don't get fired on the spot.

    Brilliant, man. I appreciate this so much.

    1. Damn man, what a compliment. I truly appreciate that.

      That's awesome that you want to share it with your students, but yes, DEFINITELY edit heavily.

      It was my pleasure to post it, so glad you appreciate it.

    2. Yes, this is a great thing to share with your students!

  6. Great Post Alex !! Glad you got to get there. That must have been helluva opportunity for you, especially since you love him so much.

    I haven't yet been properly initiated to Lee but that's something I mean to look at this year. But from what I know, this sounds very much typical Spike Lee Kinda speech. :)

    1. Thanks man! The whole evening was just bizarre. Found out at the last minute, managed to get in with seconds to spare. Insane.

      This is definitely a Spike Lee kind of speech. Definitely. Hope you dig his flicks. There is so much gold there!

  7. This is so cool Alex, thanks for transcribing this for us, it means a lot! Great reading, Lee seems like a very smart, educated, fun guy!

    1. Thank YOU for reading, my friend. I love that Lee isn't afraid to speak his mind. Man says what he feels needs to be said. Fair enough.

  8. This is great, man. It's so inspiring to read his story and motivational words from his own lips. I really need to finish his filmography. There's a lot I haven't seen yet.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! His filmography can be tough. Lot of great stuff, but a lot of mediocre work as well. Either way, it's cool to see the highs and lows.