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Spike Lee Speaks to Spring Fest

By Kevin Foley Article published April 24, 2002

Spike Lee
Director Spike Lee mingled with students before and after his April 19 talk, which was a gift of the senior class. He also found time to toss a football on the Green. (Photo: Andy Duback)

In a rollicking, wide-ranging talk, Do The Right Thing director Spike Lee touched on subjects including the GRE, the racial follies of popular films, the double-standard of university administrators who allow confederate flags to fly in dormitory windows and the "modern day minstrel acts" of some MTV rappers.

Lee’s discussion also included standard commencement address fare: He advised graduating seniors to find "what it is you like — no, love." But being Spike Lee, even this more shopworn sentiment came with an edge. "Congratulations to the graduating seniors" he said, pausing as knowing chuckles cascaded through Ira Allen Chapel. "Now get ready for the unemployment line."

Senior citizens
Lee’s first appearance at UVM since 1990 was a gift of the Class of 2002, and was one of the headline events of Spring Fest 2002, a substance-free, student-organized celebration including recognition of academic achievement and student volunteerism, amid live music and other entertainment. Tickets for Lee’s free talk disappeared as soon as they became available, and the hall was filled with students eager to ask questions about film and racial politics.

But the director began in an autobiographical mode, describing how he became passionate about film as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His remarks about needing an "astronomical GRE" to apply for graduate school seemed to resonate with the graduating seniors in the audience, as did his musing on the common conflict between a new college graduate’s desire to create a career in the arts, and his or her parents’ desire for their offspring to work in a higher-paying field.

Eventually, Lee’s remarks turned back to the film industry — and the role of people of color within it. He described some of the storytelling and aesthetic challenges that he and other black directors face working within a film canon shaped by racial misrepresentation. Lee argued that the first modern film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was essentially a "Klan recruiting video." This questionable history, along with its continuing legacy in that no people of color control film studio budgets, puts unique pressures on non-white filmmakers, he said.

On the one hand, responding to Hollywood’s legacy of racial misrepresentation creates a temptation to "overcompensate and have Christ-like characters" — decisions inimical to art — but conversely, creating flawed, realistic minority characters risks criticism from within the director's community for "airing dirty laundry," Lee said.

Lee’s solution to the dilemma, as he explained at Ira Allen and as evinced in his 15 feature films, is to focus on strong characterization and storytelling. He also said that he has confidence in his audience, even within an industry that is largely contemptuous of its consumers.

"I have been in many meetings with studio heads who refer to you — the American movie-going audience — as idiots," he said. "And every summer, they’re being proven right. It’s sequels, sequels, sequels," he said.

"Magical, mystical" mistakes
Lee had other criticism of the film industry. Though he endorsed the recent Oscar awards to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington as best actors, and director Sidney Poitier for lifetime achievement, he said he hoped that the awards were not a form of appeasement, to be followed by another 40-year lapse. He also knocked the recent popular films The Patriot, The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile for indulging in a subtle (and not-so-subtle) racial stereotyping.

"The most disturbing trend of the last few years is the super-duper magical mystical Negro," he said, continuing a theme he developed in Bamboozled, his documentary about representation in popular culture. "In these films you have this super Negro who has these powers, but these powers are used only for the white star of the film, but he can’t use them on himself or his family to improve his situation."

Even more galling to Lee, some of these historical films climax with black characters being offered freedom by their white counterparts – which they seem to decline.

"It’s this myth that we were happy being slaves. Happy that our families were being torn apart and sold on the blocks," he said.

While Lee reserved his harshest criticism for Hollywood’s power structure, he also knocked many of the rap artists who perform on MTV and BET for their stereotyped performances. "Something has got to change. And it’s up to the audience to demand it," he said.

Barring the ‘stars and bars’
The loudest and longest sustained applause of the evening came within the question-and-answer session after Lee’s remarks, when a student asked the director about his thoughts about the confederate flags sometimes displayed on student dorm windows at UVM and other institutions.

"There’s a thing called freedom of speech, I understand that, but let’s just look at a different scenario, what would be the reaction of a student body, administration, faculty if a student had a swastika hanging from the windows? I think the reaction would be a little different," Lee said. "Some of you might not see the analogy, but for people of color, when they see the confederate flag, the stars and bars, it’s the same reaction that Jewish people have when they see the swastika… I know for sure that there’s not a university in the USA where you can put a swastika in your window. That’s not going to happen."

As it turned out, these remarks were about as controversial as Spring Fest ’02 weekend got. An April 20 rock concert with the band Vida Blue attracted about 1,500 students. Security officers and police smoothly enforced the event’s ground rules, ending several years of student and community pro-marijuana demonstrations.