My photographer, Raymond Boyd and I are so engaged in a debate about Spike Lee and what just happened in the auditorium of Chicago State University that we find ourselves shivering at my rental, when we decide just to jump in the cars and continue the conversation via mobile phone.
What just happened? That’s what we’re wondering after two hours of listening to Spike Lee talk about his career as a filmmaker.
Clad in his usual NY baseball cap and black jeans accented with the black round rimmed glasses and flavorful gym shoes; Spike Lee, tonight, seemed frail. He seemed small like when he was running up and down tenements as Mookie in “Do the Right Thing.” The crowd of CSU students, faculty and Chicago natives erupted in applause once he removed his jacket to reveal a blue and white number 80 Giants throwback jersey. He took a full 10 minutes to flaunt their super bowl victory and show his extreme passion for sports. Then he set the tone for his lecture; “my experience as a filmmaker.” I thought to myself, “this is gonna be good.”
He started with his usual “Growing up in Brooklyn” story that if you’ve seen most of his interviews or attended his lectures, it’s a great way to start the Spike Lee story. Then he settled into his life at Morehouse and how by sophomore year, his adviser pushed him to select a major because he’d used up all of his electives. Then the conversation went back to Brooklyn and the summer of 77. It all felt rehearsed and told before. Or at least I’d heard it before. Blah, blah, blah.
I started to wonder if he’d ever get to the present day and tell us about Red Hook Summer for Gods sake. Then another 10 minutes on the importance of education and him being from a 3rd generation of educators. He even threw Pariah (Dees Rees – his former NYU Film School student) two shout outs when talking about his continuation of his family tradition of teaching. The audience started to yawn. One of the cameramen next to me in the media row stopped taking pictures all together. I thought to myself, “why is Spike being so politically correct?” Finally, a hint of sarcasim when he used the phrase “your boy” President Obama, as if to say, “he’s not MY boy.” It was the only time that he mentioned the Oscars when saying that was the same day he delivered his state of the union speech. The academy released their nominations. He quickly compared the slave maid role of Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind and the roles of Octavia Butler and Viola Davis in their portrayals in The Help. He actually made devilish fun of how far we’ve come. A glimpse of the ole’ pike Lee.
Then the lecture just got weird. Weird in the sense that the Spike Lee that we know and love would’ve taken this opportunity to talk about the state of cinema and his choice to produce Red Hook Summer; instead he started to talk again about his parents and their different style of parenting. Spike loves his mother, rest her soul, but I just can’t imagine he was thinking about his mother when he made Red Hook Summer. I digress. At this point, Raymond and I are looking at our watches or at least, I’m asking him what time it is. I just can’t believe that this is Spike Lee just weeks after Sundance. He even said that he prays every night because he’s able to do what he loves. “Get the f— outta here!” Weren’t you just cursing the studio system and the black movie going audiences for people like Tyler Perry? Where was this Spike Lee?
By the close of the lecture, he’d told the story again about his list of celeb friends that he called to help him finish Malcolm X. He even talked about how Denzel Washington stopped eating pork, stopped drinking and learned Arabic a year before principle photography began. As if he’d just made Malcolm X last year. I love those stories of Black moviemaking, don’t get me wrong. 24 years after Spike’s grandmother helped him with “seed money” to make She’s Gotta Have It, I can’t help but wonder why Red Hook Summer had to be told. Red Hook Summer was mentioned only once in his hour-long conversation about his life up to Malcolm X. Then he just kind of stopped talking and opened the floor up for questions. Because I love young and eager minds, I wont comment on the type of self-indulging questions that came from the audience. No one asked about Red Hook Summer. Not one student, no one from the media. It was all so very weird. He made a loud declaration that Red Hook Summer would be out in August. He didn’t have a release date yet but it would be out in August. His voice kind of reminded me of him on the grounds of Spelman promoting the release of School Daze, except this time, I guess he doesn’t’ feel like he needs to explain.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT SPIKE LEE TONIGHT
· He doesn’t believe he’s made his best film yet. (one of the most intriguing points of the evening)
· He’d still love to make the following biopics: James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis.
· His grandmother helped put him through college with a fund that she contributed to for over 50 years.
· After making Malcolm X, he knew he’d never put himself in the position of allowing someone else to determine what’s important to him.
· He believes that parents can kill more dreams than anybody.
· He’d write letters as a Freshman at Morehouse College, to his mom who was an English teacher and she’d send then back with red edits.
· “Culo” means “Ass” in Spanish (he used this word several times in his lecture).