As a child, Spike Lee admits he “wasn’t even aware people made films.” He recalled spending entire Saturdays at the Leto Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y., while he was growing up, but said he wasn’t thinking about a career in filmmaking until the beginning of his junior year in college. “Film discovered me,” as Lee described it.
Lee spoke extensively on his journey as an aspiring filmmaker during his hour-long talk in front of a crowd in Wellin Hall on April 13. The lecture was part of the C. Christine Johnson Voices of Color Lecture Series, which brings notable people of color to lecture on the Hill. He admitted that during his first two years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., he was “a C minus student.” Lee cited lack of motivation for his initially poor academic performance, but added that he found the purpose that he had been looking for during the summer of 1977.
A friend lent Lee a Super 8 camera that she had received for Christmas the previous year, and Lee went out to shoot daily life in New York City. He shot a variety of subjects during that turbulent summer, including scenes of looters following the infamous blackout and images of neighborhood block parties. When he returned to Morehouse with his film, he realized he had found his passion. He transferred to Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) and began to pursue a degree in mass communications under Dr. Herbert L. Eichelberger. Lee recalls producing his first film was “almost like an epiphany…I found something I loved.”
This led Lee to his second major point of the evening: students should follow their passions in life—regardless of what major is the most practical. “I know you’ll say this is easy for me to say,” Lee quipped, “It is easy for me to say. But I didn’t have this money when I was at Morehouse.” Lee encouraged students to pursue their dreams, however impractical they may be. He implored students not to think about the odds, stating that if he had, he would have been “paralyzed.” By not allowing their children to follow their passions, Lee remarked that parents inadvertently “kill more dreams than anybody.” He was quick to state that this was not because parents were “hateful or spiteful,” but merely because they hoped to secure more financially comfortable futures for their children. The filmmaker acknowledged that his family was always immensely supportive of his dreams, especially his grandmother, who “saved her Social Security checks for her grandkids’ education.”
Lee expressed some frustration with the current high dropout rates among African-American males in the nation’s high schools, stating that failing to complete their education was “genocide.” He highlighted the fact that slaves regularly risked their lives to learn to read and write, but today African-Americans are afraid to become educated because they fear they will be ostracized from their social groups. “Get rid of the negative people,” Lee said, “They gotta go.”
For a man who is an established cinematic giant, Lee spent relatively little time discussing his films. He said that his goal as a filmmaker is to “try and get stories made about who [African-Americans] are as a people.” Although many types of black cinema exist, Lee said he felt that “Hollywood only makes one type of black film.” Lee is an advocate for film as a form of social justice—he discussed his 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, (about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama), and expressed satisfaction that the film helped bring the bomber to justice after avoiding punishment for 30 years. Lee also spoke on his groundbreaking biopic Malcolm X (1992), and praised Denzel Washington as the “greatest actor today.”
At the conclusion of his informative and humorous talk, Lee fielded a half-hour of questions from the audience that ran the gamut from basketball to why he calls his films “joints.” He answered, “Growing up, it was just a word—you’d say ‘did you check out those new Nike joints?’” When asked a question on the screenwriting process, Lee concluded with the following: “If you can write, no matter what you wanna do, it’s gonna help you in the long run.”