| Image by All Photos by Frank Hamilton
"Last year at this time I was attending a lot of balls," Spike Lee wryly offered when he first took the low-rise stage on the campus of Loyola University. It was a casual yet smart way to set the tone for his entire chat. In Baltimore Jan. 20 to deliver the
, Lee greeted the audience by unpeeling the everyday onion of obviousness to get at something a bit more poignant: one year ago today the first African-American man was inaugurated as the President of the United States. Lee didn't bother to oversell the correlation of that event to the fact that he was delivering a speech named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, as he has done countless times in his movies, he used a moment as a historical springboard to create bridges between the past and the present. It's an inquisitive intelligence that has made him one of the most of acutely observant chroniclers of identity in contemporary American storytelling, cinematic or otherwise, and that ability to take a story and consider it for its historical and cultural currency is what made his talk so effective, moving, and accessible.
And it wasn't some prefab speech. Lee, clad in a green New York Jets cap, black turtleneck, and dark jeans, worked more off the cuff during his hour-and-change lecture, moving through subjects and ideas with a laid-back, sometimes improvisational candor. Just verbally connecting Obama and King during his opening remarks suggested an idea of the struggle not as stand-alone dates to remember, but collinear moments on an ongoing continuous path.
It was an idea echoed when talking about his career: He wouldn't be standing up there tonight, he offered, if it weren't for so many people in his life who helped him get there--his parents, his grandmother the Atlanta art teacher who, during her 50 years of teaching, never once taught a white student because of the Jim Crow South. He talked about how odd it sounded for a young black man to be thinking about making movies when he was an undergraduate at Moorehouse College in the 1970s, a time when he could think of but one black director--Michael Schultz, the veteran TV/film journeyman behind 1975's
, and 1977's rather daring
Which Way is Up?
, in which Richard Pryor plays three different characters in a broad comedy-meets-social commentary (it's an adaptation of Lina Wertmuller's 1972
The Seduction of Mimi
)--then working in Hollywood.
But the motion-picture camera kept calling him. Lee recounted spending the summer of 1977 after his sophomore year with an old Super-8 camera roaming around a New York City awash in unemployment, excessive heat, Son of Sam paranoia, and a blackout, footage that eventually became his first short.
And that's how he proceeded, touching on the incidents and people who had shaped him and the things he had to work hard to do--which led him to where he was, standing in front of a roomful of people hanging onto his words and laughing at his candid humor, insight, and wisdom. Through Lee's eyes, life offers laughs (Lee calling parents the biggest killer of their children's dreams drew the most enthusiastic response of the evening), history (talking about going to "something" at the White House and seeing all those presidential portraits, looking at the founding fathers, and saying "slave owner, slave owner, slave owner . . ."), and those wonderful developments that just make you take a time out and marinate in the moment: "My son plays ice hockey," Lee announced during an anecdote, and the look on his face that filled the quiet pause after he said it sparked a slowly popping firework chain of laughter through the room, one of the night's most mundane and human moments.
These selfless and inviting stories created a thoughtful, illuminating evening about Lee's own life as a filmmaker and a citizen of the planet. He discussed those American creation myths that established and perpetuated in historical propaganda that fed racist beliefs about the quality of the people landowners turned into slaves, but was quick to point out that these distortions passed as facts could just as easily be applied to Native Americans or the degradation of women. Throughout, Lee's ability to leapfrog through subjects gave you the feeling he could intelligently explore any topic you threw at him.
And he did a very good job of just that during the Q&A session that followed his talk, during which students and adults asked him questions that got him talking about his movies, university curriculum, the possibility of the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl, the movies of Tyler Perry (which eventually produced this steely gem: "if you want to say that some of the imagery in
is Tyler Perry-esque, I agree with that"), what the earthquake in Haiti and the Hurricane Katrina do and do
have in common (during which he said that he amassed a colossal 700 hours of footage when working on
When the Levees Broke
), Michael Jackson, the movies of John Wayne, and Nelly's "Tip Drill"--with the intimate knowledge of somebody who had spent his time doing his homework on something before coming to his own conclusions about it. That's a leading-by-example lesson everybody can take to heart.