Spike Lee speaks to students about chasing their goals

Film director Spike Lee spoke to students and community members Tuesday night about his film career and advised students to follow their dreams.

In 1989, Spike Lee’s epochal Do the Right Thing, a manic meditation on race and morality on the hottest day of the year in Lee’s native Brooklyn, was heralded as a film that was wildly in sync with its times. According to Roger Ebert, one of the film’s earliest champions, Do the Right Thing was one of the most earnest reflections of modern race relations to hit theaters in years. The film felt fiercely modern.

Photo: Michael Lu
Renowned film director Spike Lee spoke to students in the Goldstein Auditorium Tuesday night.

But Tuesday night, while addressing a packed house in Goldstein auditorium, Lee referred to himself as an old man—“all fuddy duddy.”

Lee, who was asked to come to Syracuse on behalf of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, spent most of the first hour acting as a pseudo-motivational speaker. He asked the council to eschew the “three-page” biography they’d prepared and instead jumped right into the recurrent theme of the evening: “The problem today is that we’re championing ignorance,” Lee said. “We should be championing excellence.”

Although Lee’s legacy is rooted in his zeitgeist-seeking films, it was the outspoken, often invidious social activist side that students were eager to see.

“Mr. Lee is one of my personal heroes,” said Malcolm Whitfield, a sophomore art photography major. “He’s an important social figure, a militant speaker, and a man of action. That’s something we need right now.”

The auteur briefly discussed how he discovered his passion for film the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school, continued to hone his skills at Morehouse College, and eventually learned “film grammar” at NYU, where he earned an MFA in Film & Television, but he didn’t harp on filmmaking; rather, he explained how he was only able to follow his dream because of the support supplied by his family. Lee kept circling back to the idea of education and love as the basic necessities for success. He often repeated variations of, “Do what you wanna do” and advised students to not let their parents pressure them into enrolling in classes exclusively for the promise of a big money-making career: “Parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

 “It was inspirational,” said Aminah Ibrahim , a television, radio, film junior. “I’ll remember his ‘get the negativity out’ comment, and ‘do what you wanna do.’ He’s just a regular guy and he wants the best—for his family, and for us.” 

 “I was part of the BC era—before crack,” Lee said, in a serious monologue laced with his singular humor. “We never ridiculed someone for being smart. I want you to remember this: be a better critical thinker.”

Attendees will undoubtedly remember one more piece of advice he gave: “Motherf*ckers that are negative got to go.”

Not all was golden during Lee’s lecture, though. He was evasive of questions regarding Quentin Tarantino, whose vulgarity-steeped spaghetti-western-slave-revenge-flick Django Unchained Lee openly decried, citing its profuse use of the “N-word” and cartoonish depiction of slavery as misrepresentative of a serious historical period.

He also drew an unfavorable response when he took jibes at fraternities. His experience with Greek Life at Morehouse played an integral part of his first major film School Daze and he expressed surprise—and dismay—that fraternities are still the same today. “I made that mother*cker thirty years ago!”

But even here Lee turned his comments into a plea to be yourself and not to let anyone manipulate or alter your identity. (He also danced, briefly, which broke the tension.)

Of course Lee occasionally veered into digressive musings on the New York Knicks—he assured the audience that the Knicks were “gonna kick the Celtics’ ass” and was shocked to hear that the team signed Quentin Richardson earlier that day—but Lee mostly kept his focus on the importance of education and familial support, asking students to hug their teachers and thank them for all they do. (Lee has been teaching at NYU for twenty years; his mother and grandmother were also educators.)

Lauren Teng, a television, radio, film junior said, “He was personable, honest, and human. He’s a tomb of knowledge and experience.”

Lee asked that if students take home anything, they should remember to work hard and chase their dreams.

“Find what it is you love,” Lee said, pausing mid-sentence as if waiting for his thoughts to catch up, “And do it.”







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