Spike Lee entered the stage sporting bright orange glasses, a matching jacket, white pants and blue sneakers accented with the same color orange.
Friday’s engaging conversation with the Academy-Award winning director took place in a sold-out Bailey Hall and featured Prof. Samantha Sheppard, performing and media arts. It was co-hosted by the Cornell University Program Board and the Multicultural Concert Funding Advisory Board.
He began by speaking about his childhood and how he got into films, explaining that his mother was a cinephile and always took him to movies as the oldest child in his family.
His foray into filmmaking began during the summer between his sophomore and junior year. He went into the summer without a major at Morehouse University and was told by his advisor that he “ran out of electives.”
During the summer of 1977, when “everybody” was broke, Lee borrowed a Super 8 camera from his friend who was studying to be a doctor, claiming she didn’t have a use for it. He then began filming his neighborhood in his hometown of Brooklyn. This footage evolved into his first production, titled Last Hustle in Brooklyn.
After making more films during his time at Morehouse, Lee said he went on to pursue graduate work at the Tisch School of the Arts within New York University, where he would later on become a tenured professor and graduate with a M.F.A.
Lee said he decided to forego a traditional route in the realm of filmmaking, turning down an internship with Columbia Pictures. He stated he did not foresee a black man being able to climb the ranks during that time.
“There’s no way at that time a young black film maker could work his way up from the mailroom,” Lee said.
After some failures with making earlier films, Lee understood that his next project needed to be cheap. This project became She’s Gotta Have It, which was shot with a budget of $175,000. Due to budgeting constraints and having to devote funds on the shot, getting the film, affording basic necessities and editing the film, Lee adopted a constrained lifestyle.
“I was hanging with the Chef. Do you know who the Chef is?” he asked Sheppard.
When she replied no, he responded “Chef Boyardee,” laughing at his own joke, while a laughter began to resound around the room. Throughout the night, Lee responded with comedic zingers at many different points.
The 90-minute conversation explored Lee’s storied history throughout the entertainment business. He mentioned his work with Nike, creating commercials for the then-new sneaker collaboration with Michael Jordan’s as part of his character Mars in the film She’s Gotta Have It.
When Sheppard asked about Lee’s signature usage of double dolly shots — a filmmaking technique where the camera and actor are on a rolling track — Lee spoke about a powerful moment during the filming of Malcolm X, which starred Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett.
Lee noted one scene from the film where Washington recited one of Malcolm X’s speeches. Once Washington had finished saying all his scripted lines, which were based off of real speeches by Malcolm X, he continued on with the speech. That was a special moment during the production, Lee said.
“What we saw, what we witnessed, was the spirit of Malcolm coming into his vessel,” Lee said.
He credits Washington’s ability to get so into character to his extensive preparation, which began a year before the shoot and included no drinking, no eating pork, reading the Quran and embodying other aspects of Malcolm’s life. That day was so powerful that some castmates, including Bassett, still get emotional thinking about that moment, according to Lee.
Lee followed up this moment by mentioning his favored baseball team the Yankees’ recent victory, breaking the tense room into laughter once again.
Sheppard then turned the conversation to the usage of Brooklyn as the backdrop for his stories, an important part of his personal history.
Lee mentioned how Brooklyn today is vastly different from the Brooklyn he grew up in from rising gentrification. He acknowledged his conflicted feelings, noting that schools have improved, the property values have gone up and police patrol the area. However, he takes issue with people not respecting the existing culture in Brooklyn.
“Some of these neighbors you know, they come in like they been, Christopher Columbus syndrome, like you been here,” Lee said. “Motherfucker, you just got here. We’ve been here. Come with some humility, there’s a culture here.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of his critically acclaimed film Do The Right Thing, which earned two nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay and was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” and selected for the National Film Registry.
Upon reflecting on the legacy of the film, Lee returned to critics’ responses of the film back in the day and the police presence at the premieres, fear that moviegoers would emulate what was on screen.
“Because what they were saying, what these racists were saying was that black people, black moviegoers, don’t have the intelligence to make the distinction between what was on the screen and what is real life,” Lee said.
This year, Lee also earned his first Oscar, Best Adapted Screenplay, for his film Blackkklansman. His first entry into the Oscars was nearly 30 years ago. He credits the move towards a more diverse Oscars to activist April Reign who started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, citing the recent changes in making the voting body of The Academy more diverse.
“The only reason why all this stuff is changing is because of her, #OscarsSoWhite,” Lee said.
He also noted the parallels to his film Blackklansman losing Best Picture to Green Book and to his film Do The Right Thing to Driving Ms. Daisy.
“God is a trickster,” Lee remarked.
After a discussion on the age of streaming and how it affects filmmakers, Lee concluded that it is an individual choice filmmakers must make to release their film through streaming sites, a choice that often has a monetary swing.
Lee concluded his talk with a message to parents urging them to allow kids to follow their dreams, even if it means a career in the arts.
“You gotta do what you want to do. Even with the threat of being kicked out for this or disowned by your parents,” Lee said.
“Or you’d be miserable,” Lee added.