In a New York Giants jersey and cap, Spike Lee opened by taunting his audience.
“That’s right! Super Bowl champs! Don’t hate! . . . Where were the Bears?” the iconic New York-based filmmaker asked the crowd of students, faculty and community residents Wednesday night at Chicago State University in honor of Black History Month.
But the jokes quickly gave way to the perspective of the prolific and edgy filmmaker – of 1989’s “Do The Right Thing,” 1992’s “Malcolm X,” and the 2006 “Inside Man” and “When the Levees Broke” – on more serious topics.
They ranged from how a lack of education and knowledge of black history has spawned the violence, drug dealing and imprisonment of a generation to the importance of finding one’s passion and the need for stronger family foundations and self-reliance in the black community.
“We gotta start taking education more seriously, not only as a people but as a country,” said Lee, 54, a third- generation Morehouse College graduate and for the past 15 years a professor of film at New York University.
“We’re talking about an age where peer pressure can be devastating. Today, if you get good grades or speak good English, you’re made fun of and called ‘white.’ But if you’re on the corner drinking a 40 of the malt crack liquor, smoking a joint, pants sagging below your a–, then you’re hip, you’re black, you’re gangster, you’re ghetto. But what you really are is ignorant. . .
“We’re coming from a time when it was against the law to read and write, and now in 2012, half of black males don’t even graduate high-school.”
Lee, who has dozens movies to his credit, several taking on issues of race in America, also took time to promote his latest work, the self-financed “Red Hook Summer” expected to open in August. He also gave a shout-out to the currently playing “Pariah,” produced by one of his NYU students, Dee Rees.
Recounting how he stumbled into film-making after borrowing a friend’s camera the summer of 1977 and having a blast filming across New York City, Lee encouraged college students not to enter fields just for larger paychecks. “Find something you love,” he stressed. But he also warned they must be prepared to go it alone.
“Despite what the [Motion Picture] Academy thought that year, Denzel’s performance in Malcolm X was one of the greatest ever, and the lesson I got from that is that I will never put myself in the position for other people to determine what is good and not good,” he said. “After that, I have never cared what the Academy said.”
And recounting how he had to turn to wealthy black celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to finance “Malcolm X” when the studio pulled the plug, Lee stressed Malcolm X’s mantra about self-reliance and self-determination remains still relevant to the black community today.
Lee, complaining that the first African-American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the 1940 award for her role as a maid in “Gone With the Wind,” and this year two other actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are up for Oscars for similar roles in “The Help,” said America and Hollywood has far to go on race issues.
“Something crazy happened the other day. Your guy, Barack Obama, gave his third State of the Union address, and ironically, the next day, the Academy put out their Oscar nominations. In 1940, our first great actress is a slave maid. In 2012, we have two maids. The difference? They’re not slaves. Progress?”