Spike Lee berates cultural trends

Speaking at the Byham Theatre last Thursday, Spike Lee addressed a large group of energetic fans who gave an ecstatic welcome to the controversial filmmaker. Lee, director of Mo’ Better Blues, The Original Kings of Comedy, and the biopic Malcolm X, came to Pittsburgh to talk about his films, his life, and his views, as part of the African American Cultural Center’s series of programs celebrating Black History Month.

Lee recently produced CSA: The Confederate States of America, a mockumentary about the eerie possibilities had the South won the Civil War. The film, directed by Kevin Willmott, approaches the situation from the angle of a British documentary about America with short, inflammatory “commercial” breaks where racist propaganda supposedly would cut in.

Critics say that the film really does not describe an alternative present. According to Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger, “How far off is Willmott’s scenario anyway?”

Well-known for racy “Spike Lee Joints” like this, Lee has built a reputation for handling polemic subjects in brilliant, down-to-earth portraits. For his work in the film industry, Lee received an honorary Cesar Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. His career did not flourish from the start, however. Growing up in 1960s Brooklyn with an appreciation for African-American culture, Lee had no idea he wanted to be a filmmaker.

A supportive and assertive family gave Lee the appreciation for hard work and the value of education. His grandmother sacrificed her social security checks to help pay for college. “My mother used to push me real hard. Back then, you couldn’t be just as good as a white boy; you had to be five times better,” Lee said.

Lee attended Morehouse College and said that the summer before his junior year, his advisor told him that all his electives were used up and that he had to choose a major. Not particularly sure about the prospect of films, Lee decided to take pictures. People thought he was crazy for trying to make a living in a vacuum.

“Back then, there was almost no African-American film landscape,” Lee said.

After graduating from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts in 1982, Lee spent a long time trying to make his first big film. “When you’re making your first film, you want to include everything — explosions, people jumping from building to building, and everything else,” Lee said. “I realized that I had to start small. I had to begin with just two people talking and make it into a film.” This became his “seriously sexy comedy” She’s Gotta Have It.

Lee’s career has hit many obstacles since then, including the famous budget debate over Malcolm X. After his studio cut his funding due to overspending, Lee had to ask famous African-Americans like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey for money. He raised about $11 million doing this and was able to include everything he thought needed to be shown. Even after this, however, the Nation of Islam railed against many parts of Malcolm X, and Lee had to cut material. Overall, he has established himself as a very prominent modern director.

During his lecture, Lee took some time to give some social commentary about modern America and African-Americans.

“The power of America isn’t in how many nuclear bombs it has,” Lee said. “Its power is in its media.”

Overseas, Lee said, American pop culture icons are seen everywhere. The particular strength of music videos and the images they convey has created a lamentable social dynamic for Lee. He talked about how in his youth, young black men truly supported each other in all efforts athletic, romantic, and academic. “Now, they aspire to be a pimp,” said Lee. “I don’t get this infatuation with gangsterism. It’s just crazy.... We didn’t look up to pimps growing up.”

By speaking on how the media worships images of debauchery, Lee proved that he really sees his medium as effective and worthwhile. He talked about having to censor what his children watch these days to keep the corrupt messages away from them.

In the question-and-answer session following the lecture, one public school teacher said he used the media in many parts of his curriculum but tried to expose his students to positive influences. He asked, “How can I help them get past negative images?” Lee said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. You have an uphill battle.”

In the fall, Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary Levees be Broke will premiere on HBO. “We turned our back on New Orleans,” said Lee. “We’ve all seen the videos and pictures.... Now it looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.”

The many films that Lee has directed span many stories and themes, but he says that there are many stories left to be told.