Director Spike Lee speaks on life, film

by Andrew Allport | 1/19/99 6:00am

In a speech peppered with his characteristic wit and criticism of many movies and television shows for their distorted portrayal of African-Americans, filmmaker Spike Lee gave the keynote address to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration last night in front of a capacity crowd in Spaulding Auditorium.

With a conversational, unrehearsed tone, Lee focused more on films than on the civil rights movement, coming down hard on movies like "Amistad," "Cry Freedom" and "Ghosts of Mississippi," which he felt "misplaced the focus" by inappropriately centering on white characters.

Speaking about "Amistad," Lee commented that the white character played by Matthew McConaughey played a more major role in the movie than any of the slaves, despite the fact that it was billed as a movie about slavery.

Lee drew laughs from the crowd when he said, "What was Matthew McConaughey doing in that film? I don't understand it," referring to the fact that Director Steven Spielberg chose to cast the popular actor, taking the focus away from the story of the slaves' struggle.

Lee said Spielberg would have been better suited to do as he did with "Schindler's List," -- a movie Lee praised -- when Spielberg chose to cast only less well-known actors and focus on telling the story of the Holocaust in the most effective way possible.

While he acknowledged that directors are not relegated to making movies only about their own race, he said it is "a very hard thing" for white directors to make movies about black issues.

Even for an acclaimed director like Spielberg, Lee said, the difficulty undermines the quality of the film, resulting in movies like "The Color Purple" and "Amistad," both of which Lee criticized.

He also blasted the Warner Brothers (WB) and United Paramount Network (UPN) television networks for their African-American targeted programming, which included such sitcoms as "Homeboys from Outer Space" and "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" -- UPN's ridiculed sitcom about Abraham Lincoln's imaginary butler, which Lee said was a sitcom about slavery.

"Would they make a sitcom about the Holocaust?" he asked.

Lee said these programs make him "feel like we're going backwards."

Lee also offered advice and some insight into the world of filmmaking and issues of race in the world of art.

Although Lee received standing ovations from the audience both before and after he spoke, many students said afterwards that his apparently unwritten speech and what they perceived as a lack of focus, were disappointing.

Tiffany Showell '92, the Assistant Director of Admissions and Student Affairs at the Tuck School, said Lee failed to "pay homage where homage was due."

"If it wasn't for people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X ... he wouldn't be making films," Showell said, adding that she was still thankful Lee came to the campus.

Melissa Draper '99 said she felt the speech, which billed Lee as speaking about "The Meaning of Neighbor, Community and Indifference," failed to address these issues and instead was predominantly about the filmmaker.

The speaker also sparred with audience members during the question and answer portion of the evening, answering questions with questions of his own and nearly getting into an argument with a student who felt Lee had misinterpreted his question. "So what's your point?" Lee demanded.

One student said she felt Lee's manner of speaking and his answers were appropriate. She said she was even exasperated with students' questions, and said "they need a swift kick in the ass."

Lee, who has directed comedies, dramas and even documentaries during his 12-year career, talked to the audience about his origins as a student at Morehouse College, then as a aspiring director in New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

But Lee told the audience it was before his collegiate education, however, that he found himself wondering why African-American culture was not better represented in the movies. As a child, he said, he used to go to the local theater but never saw the "richness of culture" that he saw on the streets of Brooklyn.

Inequality reflected in the movies translated to the atmosphere in film school, where, he said, he understood he had to "be 10 times better" than the white students to be successful. His drive and determination paid off when his senior year his final project won the Student Academy Award.

However, such recognition does not bring immediate success. In fact, Lee told the more than 900 people there, "there's no such animal" as instant success -- in any field. Success comes after an artist accumulates a body of work, he said, not only after one hit movie.

But the filmmaker learned that lesson the hard way -- after graduating and being awarded for his film, he simply "waited by the phone" in the hopes movie studios would call.

He waited, he said, "until Ma Bell turned off the phone."

After the gas and electric companies followed, Lee said he had two choices: to go to Hollywood or to try and find sufficient money to make an independent film. He took the latter route, and ended up making his first movie, "She's Gotta Have It," in 12 days with $175,000 -- funding supplemented by saving bottles and cans for deposit.

"If anyone threw away a can he got hit with a baseball bat," Lee joked.

Lee was introduced by College President James Wright, who told the audience he was pleased with the way students came together Fall term, when the campus was embroiled in controversy surrounding a party with a "ghetto" theme sponsored by a Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Xi Delta sorority.

"We still have some distance to travel," Wright said of race relations. "I am proud to walk with you."