Yesterday, I returned to my alma mater surprised and pleased that my small liberal arts school (College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA) had managed to bring Spike Lee to the campus. I also came with special instructions from my actress friend who still lives there to deliver her info (resume, headshot, etc.) to him, but more on that later. I’d like to give an overview of what Spike said, what key questions were asked and how he responded to them. After re-reading Darralynn Hutson’s write up of Spike’s visit to her campus in February, I’ve realized that he probably repeats most of the same things everywhere he goes. So keeping that in mind, here’s what happened:
Spike started speaking after a rousing standing ovation from the audience speaking about how daunting it is being in college and not knowing what to do with your life. He himself wasn’t very motivated and was just barely getting by academically until after his sophomore year when his mother died and he was back in Brooklyn that summer, the eldest of his siblings, with no job and no prospects. That’s when he came across a camera and started filming people all over New York City. Obviously, he started filming and never stopped. His greatest inspiration and teacher in college was a professor at Clark Atlanta University and stressed that if you have a teacher or professor you think is great you should tell them. He also stressed the importance of doing what you love and not just what you think will make you the most money.
Back when he decided to become a filmmaker the only notable black filmmaker was Michael Schultz. However, Spike comes from a long line of family members who have respect for and nurture artistic gifts starting with his great great grandmother who was born enslaved but went on to graduate from Spelman and become an art teacher. He continued stressing that education is key particularly for people of color, but that it’s just as important to have parental support. If we don’t nurture our children’s artistic gifts, he asserted, the world won’t get to experience these gifts and you’ll have adults who resent their parents for following their “formula” rather than pursuing what makes them happy.
(Note: If you go to see Spike somewhere, don’t take pictures or record him with your phone or you risk him dressing you down as he did one man in the front row saying “I dont wanna put you on blast“, but then Spike did exactly that.)
There were some questions that Spike answered during his Q&A that may be of interest to S&A readers as well:
On Go Brazil Go!
– A woman asked if Spike would be tackling Brazil’s racial and social inequality in this piece he’s supposed to start shooting next month (perhaps she’s an S&A reader as well) and I thought he kind of hedged in his response. He said that Go Brazil Go! will cover Brazil’s rise to economic prominence from the eyes of an outsider– himself. He talked about how a lot of things were coming up that will showcase Brazil on a global level such as the World Cup and the Olympics and that he was approached by Brazilians to do this film. He did not directly answer whether the film would tackle social and racial inequality in Brazil. Instead he divulged how he’s had some of the greatest times of his life in Brazil like when he shot They Don’t Really Care About Us with Michael Jackson there. He provided a couple of MJ anecdotes and a short impersonation of MJ’s “falsetto” voice and his “serious/angry” voice. It was funny. I don’t know if he actually hedged on this answer because the film will be a touristy piece showcasing Brazil or if it will actually broach the subject of inequality, but he got distracted by his MJ anecdote.
On A New MJ Tribute Film
– Spike announced that he recently began filming a piece for the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Bad album.
On Tyler Perry
– When first asked what he thought about Tyler Perry, Spike responded “Next question.” And everyone laughed. He later complimented Perry when responding to another question saying, “his business sense is tremendous […] but we as a community are more multidimensional” than what’s portrayed in his movies.
His Most Favorite Recent Movie
– Attack the Block
On Why Black Movies Aren’t More Reflective of Who We Are As a People
– Here Spike talked a lot about “gatekeepers“. Gatekeepers are a select group of people who decide what films will be made and which ones won’t. People who can greenlight projects have the votes for films and networks and those people aren’t black. They make the decisions by looking at who’s in it, how much it will cost and how much it will make. Marketers have much more power than they did before. If they don’t think they can market it, they won’t make it, hence George Lucas’s Red Tails fiasco. With the exception of one black woman at FOX, there are no people of color with a vote hence, you get movies like Soul Plane.
On How He Scouts Talent
– Spike likes actors who are naturals and don’t try to “act”. In many of his early films, he cast people who were relatively unknown and hadn’t acted that much like Halle Berry and Mekhi Phifer. He met Rosie Perez at a party in LA and he thought she talked funny and was cool. Much of the cast of Red Hook Summer do not have a background in acting. Having said this, he will most likely not be responsive if you hand him a headshot, resume, etc. It is like kryptonite to him which is why I felt a little awkward when my friend asked me to hand him her info. Luckily she was able to make the end of the show so that she could try and give it to him herself and we both stood and waited for the blow as he swiftly rejected her. He was polite and made small talk at first, but as soon as she said the words “my headshots” he went “Oh.” and turned and strolled off doing his cool man stroll” (he has a sort of strut thing that he does).
All in all, I came away with my respect and admiration for him remaining unchanged. He followed his dream and is living it. I just hope he keeps the rawness and authenticity he’s been known for.