Filming was prohibited at Spike Lee’s talk on Wednesday, but Lee had some friendly advice for those committed to illicit documentation: “At least put your finger over the red light, man.” The Oscar-nominated director, producer, writer, actor, and professional rabble-rouser spoke candidly and quite didactically as part of Chicago State University’s Black History Month program, “Revolutions, Reels & Rhythms.”
A small man swimming in a large New York Giants jersey, Lee walked the audience through his life story, from his early education at Morehouse College to his experience finding emergency funding for “Malcolm X” to his current faculty position at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The gathered crowd was so large that CSU relocated the event from the school’s library to their gymnasium.
“Let’s talk about education,” Lee declared at one point, and education was the underlying current. Famously outspoken about race relations, Lee bemoaned modern attitudes towards black identity and culturally sanctioned ignorance. He was especially concerned that “black kids equate being black with being ignorant.”
Lee recounted his own apathetic approach towards his education before his first foray into cinema. He discovered filming the summer after his second year of college, which he spent with a Super Eight camera in his Brooklyn neighborhood, documenting civilian responses to the Son of Sam killings.
Always controversial, Lee walked the line between honest commentary and deliberate incediarism. At one point, he recounted being told by his mother that he better “be ten times better than your white classmate” if he wanted to succeed. Later on, he offered a more pointed memory of his mother saying, “I know your Jewish classmate has an A.”
However, Lee’s main points were not political in nature. He credited his mother and grandmother with his success, and praised them effusively for exposing him early on to museums, films, and concerts. He encouraged students in the audience to find their creative passion, and begged parents not to “just rely on the schools” to do everything. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that not everyone could be as lucky as he had been. Lee’s grandmother lived to be 100 years old. She never spent a single Social Security check on herself, but instead used that money to send Lee to college.