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Filmmaker Spike Lee speaks to the audience gathered at the Events Center for a talk on Feb. 19.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Spike Lee discusses love of filmmaking
February 20, 2015Tweet
There is no bigger blessing than pursuing what you love, filmmaker Spike Lee told Binghamton University students during a talk Feb. 19 at the Events Center.
“I was lucky. I worked hard, but I was lucky,” the writer/director/actor said. “I don’t say: ‘I found film.’ I say: ‘Film found me.’
“A lot of (students) get tripped up thinking that the major they choose is the one that is going to make them the most money. Big mistake. Find out what it is that you love.”
Lee noted that he doesn’t need an alarm clock for a 6 a.m. film shoot. “I wake up because I know I am going to have fun. When you have a job you hate, you need a crane to get [yourself] out of bed!”
Lee, who has made acclaimed movies such as Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Jungle Fever, spoke to 700 students and community members as part of Black History Month. The free talk was sponsored by Campus Activities; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Multicultural Resource Center; and the Student Association Vice President for Multicultural Affairs.
Lee discovered his love of filmmaking because of a visit to a friend during the summer of 1977, when he was between semesters at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“Right before it was time to go back to Brooklyn for the summer, I had a meeting with my advisor,” said Lee, who admitted that he struggled during his first two years at Morehouse. “She told me: ‘Think long and hard in choosing your major when you come back.’ I asked why. She said: ‘You’ve exhausted all of your electives.’”
Lee returned that summer to a city facing economic turmoil. Without a job, he decided to say hello to a friend named Vietta Johnson.
“It was one of the most important days of my life,” he said. “I had been home two weeks, not doing anything. The spirit told me: Go see Vietta.”
While visiting Johnson, Lee noticed two boxes. A Super 8 camera was in one box; film was in the other. Johnson told Lee to take the boxes.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it changed my life,” he said.
Lee spent the summer filming in New York City. An electrical blackout in July led to looting throughout the city. Lee was there to document it.
“What else was happening that summer?” he said. “It was the first summer of disco. So every weekend, every block had a block party with DJs hooking up their turntables. The dance was ‘The Hustle.’
“Then there was a psychopath named David Berkowitz — The Son of Sam — who, in reality, had all of the white New Yorkers scared. Black people weren’t scared!”
Lee took his footage back to Morehouse, where a professor encouraged him to tell the story of that tumultuous summer. The result was Last Hustle in Brooklyn.
“I showed it to my class and they liked it,” he said. “That’s when it hit me: I am going to tell hopefully truthful stories about the African -American existence in this country. I was very, very clear that some of these images might not all be positive. I got criticized a lot, but the truth was more important.”
Lee also became an A+ student during his final two years at Morehouse, taking advantage of the benefits of a liberal-arts school. The liberal-arts experience made him a well-rounded person, he said.
“When you’re a filmmaker, you need to know a lot of different subjects,” he said. “You need to be an expert.”
At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lee continued to build his filmmaking skills and became a “student of cinema.” The graduate student began to notice how Hollywood’s history perpetuated “an almighty white race” and the damage that had been done to African-Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and women.
“Film is a very powerful medium, able to build people up or destroy them,” he said. “When imagery is used to dehumanize people, it has a great effect.”
Film, TV and pop culture display American power more than the existence of nuclear weapons do, Lee emphasized.
“A nuclear bomb never influenced someone how to dress, how to talk, how to dance,” he said. “You can go all over the world and see the impact of American culture: dance, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop. The whole world wants it.”
Lee would go on to make his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, in 1986. His career has included dozens of films, documentaries, music videos and television commercials. He also teaches film at NYU.
“It has been my charge to try to show alternative versions of the experiences of African-Americans in this country,” he said.
While America has been torn in the past couple of years by the deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, Lee said he is encouraged by the advocacy shown by today’s youths.
“I was out in the streets of New York City when they had the marches,” he said. “I felt great to be in New York because it was everybody [marching]. There were young white kids holding up signs saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ It was very diverse. I’m enthusiastic about the young minds in this country.”