Still Trying to Do the Right Thing
In conversation with USC College’s Robin Kelley, filmmaker Spike Lee tackled a wide range of issues — from the portrayal of American-Americans in popular culture to Hurricane Katrina and the importance of following your dream.By Pamela J. Johnson
December 1, 2006
Appearing at USC, filmmaker Spike Lee sharply criticized a subgenre of the hip-hop community called gangsta rap, dismissing it as culturally approved misogyny — music banned in his own home.
“Any type of music that debases women..., it’s just mind-boggling,” Lee told an audience of more than a thousand at Bovard Auditorium. “That’s somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s child.”
Lee’s presence was part of “Visions and Voices,” a university-wide initiative that promotes the arts and humanities through theatrical productions, music and dance performances, lectures and films.
USC College’s Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history and American studies and ethnicity, interviewed Lee, acclaimed for his often-controversial films dealing with race relations, politics and urban crime and poverty issues.
Kelley asked Lee what he has done in his own films to improve the way in which women are portrayed.
Wearing a cardinal and gold “Trojans ‘SC” sweatshirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes, the 49-year-old Lee replied candidly.
“My portrayal of women has been a lot better since I got married,” said Lee, who married Tonya Lewis Lee in 1993, after he had directed six feature films, some including, "She’s Gotta Have It," "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X."
“Because my wife, Tonya, she lets me know,” Lee said. “So I’m a better person than before.”
Born in Atlanta and named Shelton Jackson Lee, he was nicknamed Spike by his mother, a school teacher. Lee was raised in Brooklyn, where as a child he dreamed of playing second base for the New York Mets.
“But genetics conspired against that happening,” Lee joked.
His father and grandfather had attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and his mother and grandmother graduated from nearby Spelman College.
“So, it was expected that I would go to college,” Lee said. “When I got there I had no idea what I wanted to do.”
After his sophomore year, he decided he wanted to be a filmmaker and majored in mass communications.
“When I would tell my friends at Morehouse that I wanted to be a filmmaker, they looked at me like I was crazy,” Lee said. “Like I said that I wanted to walk to the moon.”
He considers himself lucky that his parents encouraged him to follow his dream.
“In my observation, parents kill more dreams than anybody,” Lee said. “Parents. And the sad thing is that they think they’re doing it for your best interest.”
In 1979, he graduated from Morehouse and three years later graduated from film school at New York University — his second choice.
“I wanted to come to USC, but something happened,” Lee said. “I didn’t get accepted . . . . To get into USC you have to get an astronomical score on the GRE [Graduate Record Examinations]. So I took the test, but I didn’t get the score.”
He thinks that such aptitude tests shouldn’t be required in the arts.
“In film school maybe the GRE shouldn’t be the complete determination for whether you get accepted or not,” Lee said. “Maybe med school, but film school? The GRE?”
At NYU, he’s a professor and the film school’s artistic director. But as a student, the university at one point tried to give him the boot. His film, "The Answer," about a black screenwriter’s remake of D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation," rankled the faculty, Lee said.
“When they saw the film, I got failing grades and they kicked me out,” Lee said. “Then they realized, how can we kick him out, we awarded him a [teaching assistant job] for next year already. That’s how I got to stay in film school.”
Looking back, he believes that film chose him.
“Growing up when I did, the richness I could see in the African-American community just looking out my window or standing on a corner really wasn’t on Hollywood screens or on television,” Lee said. “When I was in film school, there was Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and the only African-American director working was Michael Schultz.”
In 20 years, he has directed 21 films, including his thesis movie, "Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads." He has directed three documentaries, most recently HBO’s "When the Levees Broke."
After Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans and the government’s rescue delay, Lee said he knew he wanted to tell the story.
“I felt in my heart that this was going to be a definitive moment in American history,” Lee said. “Race definitely had a place in this. But you can’t leave out class. When Kanye West said that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, he augmented it by saying that George Bush doesn’t care about poor people, period.
“White New Orleanians who were poor were just as affected as their black neighbors, but you never saw it on television news.”
He preferred making a documentary of the tragic events.
“I wanted to provide a platform so that people who were still living through the pain could talk and share it with the world,” he said.
The real crime, Lee said, is that a year later, the situation in New Orleans remains grim.
“People today have still not received their FEMA trailers,” Lee said. “Suicides are way up. There’s more spousal abuse, depression.”
He also decried the dearth of opportunity for African-American directors in Hollywood. He lamented that most Hollywood films about the African-American experience are “ghettoized.”
“That’s not going to change until [more African-Americans] get what I call those ‘gatekeeper positions,’ ” he said. “These are the select few, the very small group of people who run a studio or network.”