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Spike Lee: Blame rap

Director says hip-hop culture distracts from education

By
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

He wore a New York Yankees cap and warmed up the audience with a jab at the New England Patriots. But, turning serious, award-winning film director Spike Lee expressed concern about the misguided values some blacks live by today in a speech last night.

Lee focused on film, hip-hop and the importance of education and hard work in the black community in his lecture to an enthusiastic crowd in a packed Salomon 101.

“No matter what you want to do, if you want to achieve that dream, you have to bust your ass,” Lee said. “I’m very fortunate (to be successful) because my first two years I wasn’t doing anything in school.”

Lee, who attended historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, said a major problem with the education of blacks was the notion that being smart was equivalent to being white.

“If you speak correct English, get good grades, you get ostracized as being a sellout,” Lee said. While he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, “you got major props if you were smart. No one would call you a white boy or white girl if you got A’s.”

Lee said he blamed the rap industry for discouraging blacks from hard work and studying. At one point, “it was against the law for African-Americans to learn how to read and write,” Lee said. Now, rap music and videos spread the notion that “ignorant is being black … gangsta … ghetto.”

Lee, who said he had “no idea (he) wanted to be a filmmaker,” credited his surroundings for his early success. Lee was raised in Brooklyn by his mother, an art teacher, and his father, a jazz musician. He said he first starting filming the summer after his sophomore year of college in 1977.

That summer in New York City, Lee said he filmed a “blackout,” “blacks and Puerto Ricans looting,” “the first summer of disco” and the Son of Sam serial killer scare.

“I had all this footage and no idea what to do with it,” Lee said, adding that the material eventually inspired him to become a mass communications major.

Lee broke onto the film scene with late 1980s indie hits “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing,” and has recently scored big with 2006’s “Inside Man,” which was critically acclaimed.

Despite his recent success, Lee says it’s still difficult to get financing for films about blacks.

“Hollywood will finance a certain type of African-American film,” Lee said, referring to “bang-bang” gangster movies and “lowbrow comedy.”

“Tyler Perry has a film every month coming out,” Lee quipped.

Resolved to show “not just the pretty pictures but the ugly stuff too” about the black experience, Lee plugged his latest film, which is about black soldiers in World War II.

Lee said black soldiers faced racial prejudice while serving in the military, adding, “even today, in Iraq – I know how I feel about this war.”

After a pause, Lee then smiled and recited presidential candidate Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes we can” to a wildly cheering crowd.

“Just the thought of someone like Barack being president of these United States – I still wake up in the morning scratching my head,” Lee said. “My grandmother – I know she went to heaven knowing this day would never come.”

Kibwe Chase-Marshall ’11 said Lee’s voice resounded loudly on issues beyond film.

“While you might have another director here to give insights on why to opt for a dolly shot or a pan, (Lee) can offer things that are a lot more valuable in a cultural context,” he said.

Reginald Cole ’10 said that “as a speaker trying to talk to a Brown crowd, (Lee) couldn’t necessarily go into depth about” certain subjects.

The Brown community, which Lee told The Herald is “together” and “always has fun,” was receptive of him, as dozens of students crowded Lee for autographs after his speech, which was sponsored by the Brown Lecture Board.

“Absolutely genius,” said Dami Olatunji ’11. “I can’t stay awake from most lectures – but I stayed awake for this one.”

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