Spike Lee, the critically acclaimed film director, visited the University of Maryland last Thursday to offer his insights into the film industry, American politics and African-American culture.
“Don’t ask me how to end world hunger or what the cure for AIDS is,” said a joking Lee, well known for such films as “She’s Gotta Have it,” “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X,” to the eager students who packed the University of Maryland’s Huff Theater.
But Lee was more than willing to share his insights. He began by explaining his own entry into the film industry. Lee, who attended Morehouse College, began university with no conception of being a filmmaker.
“My first two years, I was drifting,” said Lee. Returning to NYC in the summer of 1977, Lee saw citywide blackouts, looting among Puerto Ricans and African Americans, disco culture and news of the Son of Sam. Lee was inspired by these circumstances. “Film making chose me; I didn’t choose filmmaking,” said Lee, who subsequently studied film at NYU.
Lee’s first commercial success came with the controversial “She’s Gotta Have It.” The film chronicles an independent and sexually liberated Nola Darling, who juggles three male lovers. Released in 1986, critics lambasted the film for its liberal depiction of female sexuality in light of the AIDS epidemic, which, in 1986, was severely misunderstood.
“AIDS comes out and suddenly I’m an irresponsible film director,” said Lee.
But Lee’s work is known for its controversial nature. His most recent documentary, “When the Levees Broke,” chronicles the governments failure to protect the people of New Orleans – particularly African Americans and poor whites – from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Lee argues that the results of Hurricane Katrina show an administration unconcerned with the plight of African Americans and poor whites.
“I still don’t understand why it took five days for the U.S. government to get to New Orleans. Karl Rove was fly fishing, and who knows where Cheney was,” said Lee.
Lee told the students at the University of Maryland that Americans are “gullible people.” According to Lee, Americans re-elected George W. Bush even after Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 illustrated Bush’s Saudi business ties, and despite the fact that the Bush group “stole” the 2000 election. Speaking of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lee said, “There are parents whose children are not here because of the 2000 election.”
Lee did not hesitate to criticize black culture as well. He criticzed ganster rap as projecting a poor cultural message. Lee, who is the creative director at NYU’s Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, argues that gangster rap supports the idea that being educated is tantamount to “acting white.”
Taking questions from the audience, one student asked Lee if it is harder to make a film today than when he entered the film business. Speaking from 20 years of experience, Lee argued that with advances in technology, everyone can now make films; it is no longer necessary to go to film school.
Lee added, “Who is going to be successful are people with a unique voice.”