A student asked filmmaker Spike Lee when he visited Webster University what people who were looking to make a difference in St. Louis could do to push forward in the aftermath of Ferguson.
“I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I know someone who could,” Lee said.
Lee then brought up Michael Brown, Sr., the father of shooting victim Michael Brown, as the audience stood and applauded.
“You just have to stay positive,” Brown, Sr. said. “If you had your mind made up on moving forward, doing something bigger and better and you are with the right group of people, that’s all you need.”
Lee spoke to students, faculty and St. Louis citizens at the Loretto-Hilton Center Monday, Sept. 28 in a sold-out event called “An Evening with Spike Lee.”
Lee is known as the director of films such as Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It, 4 Little Girls and the remake of Oldboy.
He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing and Best Documentary (Feature) for 4 Little Girls. Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983.
He will receive an Academy Honorary Award when the Academy holds its seventh Annual Governors Awards Ceremony in November.
In his introduction, moderator and Conservatory of Theatre Arts faculty member Gad Guterman said Lee has “revolutionized the world of black talent in cinema.”
Lee’s upcoming film, Chiraq, will be released by Amazon Studios as its first theatrical release. The film is about violence in Chicago and based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata.
Lysistrata, written by playwright Aristophanes, is a play about a woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing other women to withhold privileges from their husbands in an effort to force the men to surrender. Lee said he wished to take this story and apply it to modern-day Chicago. The film’s title comes from the combination of Chicago and Iraq. Lee said the film will save lives.
“It is a war zone in Chicago right now,” Lee said.
Fighting for rights
Lee said when people say “black lives matter,” they are not saying other lives don’t matter. It is just bringing the challenges of African-Americans to light. He said events like the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in St. Louis seemed like an “open attack on people of color.”
He remembers seeing people of different races and backgrounds in protests.
“It was amazing to me to see young white teenagers hold up signs and walk saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Lee said. “You look at the way the press is reporting, it would seem like black people are the only people marching. That’s not the case at all.”
Lee said a huge fallacy is the one that arose when President Barack Obama was elected.
“The minute Barack Hussein Obama put his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, abracadabra … and poof, racism just disappeared,” Lee said. “That’s the stupidest (thing) I’ve ever heard.”
Lee and Brown, Sr. said people have to think for themselves when thinking about fighting for civil rights. Others will follow suit.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” Brown, Sr. said. “If you can touch one, you can touch about five or 10.”
Lee said that while police officers killing African Americans is a serious issue, it should not be the only thing to be outraged
“We have to have the same outrage when we kill ourselves,” Lee said.
Filmmaker Tré Williams said Lee is sending out the right message.
“He’s preaching about America being unified and how we have to be courteous of other races,” Williams said. “No matter who you are or where you’re from, respect one another and follow your dreams.”
However, Webster film production student Kelly Otto said it is what Lee does not do that stands out the most.
“I don’t know what Spike Lee is doing for the community,” Otto said. “What is he giving back, besides vaguely answering the questions and not making eye contact?”
Webster Media Communications student Makenna Burton said while big speeches are one thing, leading by example is another.
“He has the resources to evoke change, and he’s not doing it,” Burton said.
Being an artist
Lee said he found his passion for filmmaking in Brooklyn. Lee borrowed a Super 8 camera from a friend and, beginning in 1977, walked through the streets of New York filming.
He shot events such as the unrest that occurred during the New York City Blackout of 1977 and the fear in New York during the
Son of Sam killings.
When Lee returned to college in the fall, a film professor encouraged him to take his footage and make a documentary out of it. He spent all that semester editing the film, which became Last Hustle in Brooklyn.
Lee said when it comes to being an artist, there is no such thing as overnight success, and hard work is the key to making it in the real world.
He said artists can learn something from athletes.
“Without discipline, they (athletes) wouldn’t get to where they are,” Lee said. “There are only so many leagues; only so many
Lee said the power of film comes from a combination of all the elements: visuals, sound, editing, acting, production design, music and costume design. He said he believes art can change the world, for good and for bad.
“It’s my belief that we have this material that’s going to reach out to others and make them think before they pull the trigger,” Lee said.