By Julia Belluz
Spike Lee is sitting next to me.
The 47-year-old screenwriter/producer/author/director/actor is much tinier than he looked on the Roy Thomson Hall stage and his round, tortoise-shell glasses look a lot bigger in person, overwhelming his face and sharp nostrils.
Just before my close encounter with the man who brought us movies such as Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and She’s Gotta Have It, RyeSAC’s events co-ordinator, Jeff Zoeller, tells me and the eight other reporters in the student media scrum to, “keep your questions brief,” and, “consider yourselves very lucky.”
Once my peers start to roll their questions out, I feel more disappointed than lucky. Like his answers in the audience Q&A that followed his speech, Lee is dancing around questions like a seasoned politician.
And it’s even more disappointing when a reporter from Ryerson’s NightViews asks him about International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that coincides with the night’s event, and Lee–one of the foremost filmmakers dealing with race–is unsure about the history of this important day, and asks us lowly student journalists to fill him in.
But before the Q&A, Lee’s speech seemed to engage the not-so-packed house, though he spewed mostly clichéd advice about lessons he’s learned during his successful life.
If you couldn’t afford to shell out $30 for a ticket, here’s the free, abridged version–minus the numerous attempts by audience members to give Lee their manuscript, head shot, or film: Do what you love in life. Follow your passion and don’t listen to your parents, because, “parents kill more dreams than anybody,” Lee said.
He didn’t know that film was his passion at first, and majored in mass communications at Atlanta’s Morehouse College–the alma mater of his father and grandfather. Then, after an unemployed summer spent filming around New York City, he realized he loved the medium. After graduating from Morehouse, he did his master’s in film production at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Interestingly, that summer of filming inspired his 1999 film Summer of Sam.
There’s no such thing as overnight success. After winning a student academy award at NYU, Lee said he “got the big head,” and would wait by the phone for the Hollywood to call. “Then a funny thing happened: The phone got turned off and the electricity got turned off,” he said. “So I was sitting in the dark on my skinny, rusty butt–as my mother would say–waiting for some miracle to happen.”
He realized you have to make things happen for yourself. “You cannot become anything by just talking about it,” he said. “Believe in yourself, work hard, and a little talent helps.”
Things happen for a reason. Lee recounted how his first serious attempt to make a film (called Messenger about a young New York City bicycle messenger) fell through, in part, because of what he calls, “the cardinal sin of first-time directors”: Over- ambitiousness.
He was devastated by the film’s failure, but later realized, “a lot of times things happen and you think it’s the worst thing in the world, but it was a blessing (Messenger) didn’t happen.” It made him realize how much he loved filmmaking. He went on to make 1987’s critically acclaimed, She’s Gotta Have It, his first commercially successful film.
The media is powerful and should be held accountable. The Atlanta-born filmmaker first realized this as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn. He had gone to see a Bruce Lee film, after which the audience filled the streets. attempting to do Lee’s signature flying kicks.
“This cemented (for me that movies) could be a very dangerous thing in the wrong hands,” he said.
Lee later urged the audience to “vote with their pocketbooks” and abstain from buying products that perpetuate negative gender or racial stereotypes.