Filmmaker Spike Lee told an audience at that he wasn’t too surprised to hear that Italian-American groups were protesting his appearance at the Naperville campus Tuesday night.
He did find some irony in the fact that the groups were protesting an event related to honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
King, he said, believed in equality in all things, and that included equality of expression.
Yet, Lee said there continues to be a disparity in the film industry between what is acceptable from African-American artists and what is acceptable from white artists.
“This is the oldest trick in the world—the subject matter you try and deal with, they accuse you of that,” Lee said. “P.T. Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute. It’s gotten to the point where you tell a lie enough times it becomes gospel.”
Tuesday’s program, which included Lee speaking and taking audience questions, was held at Wentz Concert Hall on the North Central campus. The event was part of the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. week activities.
Three topics stood out during Lee’s talk: the disparity in artistic freedom of expression; the need for students to educate themselves; and the need for students to follow their dreams.
Lee said the Italian-American groups have said some of his films portray stereotypical images of Italian-Americans, specifically Do the Right Thing, Miracle at St. Anna, Jungle Fever and Summer of Sam.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said.
To make his point, he used a number of examples citing movies that featured Italian-Americans negatively stereotyping African-Americans and using derogatory language toward or about them, including use of the “n-word.”
Lee read lines from movies without initally naming the films or the directors. All of the movies he chose with one exception had Italian-American directors. The films included The Godfather, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever and The Cotton Club.
“I don’t want to read in the papers, ‘Spike Lee said they (the directors) are racist.’ No, they are humanist,” Lee said.
“Why the disconnect?” he asked between his films and the ones he cited.
He said that in terms of stereotyping, pulling the scenes from his movies, “to me there is no comparison. … Those guys need to protest Jersey Shore.”
Brandon Smith, 23, of Forest Park, heard about the event because of the protest being reported in the news media. But, Smith said he was a big fan who had watched most of Lee’s films.
“He makes you aware of stereotypes,” said Smith, who admires Lee for being able to put a spotlight on it in a way that allows for examination. “In some of the inner-city areas—Do the Right Thing took place in Brooklyn—that kind of thing happens.”
Lee shared that he grew up in a home of educators and it was expected he would go to college, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, the only all-male historically black institution of higher education in the United States.
Lee said that when he was in school, he was “barely hanging on.”
“I wouldn’t do anything more than a teacher would ask. I was just sliding by,” he said. But, before the end of the semester and summer break his freshman year, his counselor told him he needed to choose a major.
He went home to Brooklyn and began making films using a Super 8 camera he had received as a gift. He returned to school and chose mass communications as his major. A professor took an interest in him and urged him to create a film using the material he shot over the summer. The next semester, he presented his film to the students.
“I didn’t choose film. Film chose me,” Lee said. “If you can make a living doing something that you love, you are blessed.”
Lee told the students in the audience that most people hate their jobs and that they have to drag themselves out of bed every day. “You’re not living, you are existing,” he said.
He explained that when he’s shooting a film, he may be up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. “I jump out of bed, it’s a joy. If you hate your job, you have to will yourself.”
“For the students, you have to find what you love and don’t listen to your parents,” Lee said. “Parents kill more dreams than anybody.” Not because they don’t care, he noted, but because they do.
Parents want children to be secure, and often they make sacrifices for their children to attend college, so they aren’t always accepting when a child chooses a non-traditional major.
“When they put that on you, it’s hard. In a moment of weakness you succumb and choose something you didn’t want. Fifteen years down the road, you are doing something you hate because you listened to your parents,” he said as audience members laughed. “It may sound funny, but it’s tragic. It’s a dream deferred.”
At the risk of being financially cut off, Lee told students that at some point they have to “cut the cord” if they are serious about their dreams.
He said it was easy to offer that kind of advice because he came from a family that was supportive of his pursuits.
Lee lamented the fact that in the African-American community, more emphasis isn’t placed on education. He said that crack changed everything.
When he was growing up, nobody would be ridiculed for being smart or speaking properly. But, today, being smart has the connotation of “being white,” yet “being down and black” is to be “standing on the corner smoking a blunt with a 40 in your hand. … Everything is topsy-turvy,” he said.
“If that isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Alex Soraparu, 20, and a history major at North Central College, said he was going to take some of what he learned at the event and incorporate it into a paper he had to write. He appreciated what Lee had to say about the double standard in the film industry and the issues with education.
“I thought it was really enlightening and inspirational to hear from someone who is sophisticated like him,” Soraparu said.