Spike Lee speaks to full chapel
Spike Lee spoke to a riveted audience in the Lorimer Chapel as the keynote speaker of S.H.O.U.T. Week.
Acclaimed film-maker Spike Lee spoke to a full house in Lorimer Chapel on Friday, Feb. 24 when he gave the fifth annual S.H.O.U.T. keynote address.
S.H.O.U.T. stands for Speaking, Hearing, Opening Up Together—a weeklong celebration of multiculturalism—and this year’s theme is “Take Charge, Make Change,” an apt mantra for Lee, whose work is celebrated for its social consciousness and for drawing attention to issues of race in particular.
Lee came to Mayflower Hill via the efforts of the Pugh Community Board (PCB) and the support of a variety of clubs and departments across campus. PCB has, for the past five years, brought to campus stand-out speakers such as Eve Ensler and Junot Diaz. Nicole Sintetos ’12, chair of PCB, introduced Lee, saying his “work wakes us up to the hypocrisy of society.”
In his speech, Lee told an attentive audience about how film found him, made many references to the N.Y. Knicks and encouraged students to find what they love and pursue it without inhibitions. He infused his talk with humor; he was personable and engaged the audience, eliciting laughter, nods and smiles throughout the evening.
“Growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. He had been a horrible student in his first years at Morehouse College in Georgia. When he came back home from college in the summer of 1977—“a pivotal summer in New York City”—there were no jobs. He inherited a friend’s camera and started shooting footage of the hot, difficult summer, which was marked by looting, disco and the psychopath Son of Sam. When he got back to school, he declared himself a mass communications major and started making films. The rest, some would say, is history.
“So, when people ask me, ‘how did I find film?’ I turn around and say, ‘film found me,’” he said. “For me, that was crucial, because I found something that I loved.” Once a C- student, doing the bare minimum to scrape by, Lee became an A+ student, going above and beyond for each assignment because he cared deeply about what he was doing.
“That’s why you have to think about what it is you want to do, what it is that you love,” he urged students. “I say my prayers every night because I am doing what I love.”
“Short of killing somebody or robbing somebody, I would do whatever I had to do to make sure that I was successful as a filmmaker,” he said. After graduating from Morehouse, he attended film school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he now teaches and serves as the artistic director.
While in school, he saw that the vitality of black culture that he saw every day was not reflected on the big screen. He realized, “I want to make films that I would pay to see that deal with the multidimensional levels of who we are as a people…the good and the bad…of African American people. And that’s when I knew,” he added.
He knew he would have to go the independent route with his work. Hollywood, he said, still does not reflect the diversity and vitality of the United States, which he seeks to portray in his work. Lee expressed the importance of audience members to going out and seeing independent films in the theaters; if the films are not supported in the theaters, they get pulled and it is harder and harder for the independent filmmaker to afford to keep going. “We have to make an effort to see those films,” he said.
Although we have an African American president, he said, the progress is not there in the realm of Hollywood. In 1940, one African American was nominated for an Oscar for the role of a slave maid. “In 2012, we’ve got two,” he said, “for the roles of maids [in The Help].” “Hollywood is stuck,” he said. “Sports have run laps around Hollywood” as far as diversity goes.
Reaching success as an independent filmmaker was a long, difficult road for Lee, especially at first. “There are no shortcuts, there is no such thing as an overnight sensation,” Lee said. He asked the audience, “Who here wants to be an artist?” and many cheered in response. “Now, who here is prepared to starve?” he followed, and the audience laughed, albeit nervously.
At the end of the evening, audience members lined up to ask Lee questions. Lee was eager to talk and with anyone from New York City he had a brief chat about the neighborhood from which they came. Many student questions asked for career or personal advice. PCB provided students the opportunity to meet Lee after the talk in a reception in Pulver Pavilion.