In a speech more personal than political, more anecdotal than polemical, a subdued and somber Spike Lee discussed his six movies and his newest film before a sympathetic capacity crowd of 500 at Catonsville Community College last night.
Although the outspoken filmmaker, 36, has spent his career tackling controversies, he spoke mostly about his films and his filmmaking, leaving political protest and speculation to some audience members. When questioners tried to draw him out on racial and political matters, he budged little.
"Don't ask me how we stop AIDS or homelessness or poverty or racism," he said at the beginning of his hour-long address. "I don't necessarily have the answers -- at least not tonight."
He did raise his voice when asked about the portrayal of women in his films, and any role the CIA and the FBI may have played in the assassination of Malcolm X, the subject of his last movie. But he became angry only when a questioner implied he had lost creative control of "Malcolm X."
"What impact did the Jews have on the tampering of the script?" one questioner asked during the question-and-answer session after his speech, referring to the treatment of the Nation of Islam in the film.
Visibly angry, Mr. Lee cut off the questioner. "I think it's very irresponsible for you to sit there and insinuate. . . . If there was something you didn't like about the film, say Spike Lee screwed up," he answered. He continued, to scattered applause, "Don't try to put it on Jewish people. I have the final cut."
In his address, Mr. Lee, a frequent critic of Hollywood, criticized some black filmmakers and the studios for limiting the vision of movies about blacks. Black films have become stereotypical, he said, turning into "gangsta, hip-hop, urban, street drug movies." But he noted that these films would stop being made only when people would stop paying to see them.
He implied some young black filmmakers made such movies only because they had no choice: "If you're a young filmmaker, and you're desperate and you're hungry, you might go the easiest route. But it's not necessarily the most courageous and creative." He urged black filmmakers to "open the scope up. The totality of the African-American experience cannot be told in these urban films."
This, he said, applied to his own plans as well. "I don't want to be boxed in," he told the audience. "I want to do musicals, I definitely want to do three or four sports films," especially on how black people have become part of the billion-dollar sports and entertainment industries.
Mr. Lee also talked about his newest film, "Crooklyn," which will open in May. He described it as being about "a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Mr. Lee said he saw the early '70s as a time of heightened black consciousness, when black styles and music thrived. The film, he said, "was not necessarily a nostalgic look back," but a time "when young kids didn't worry about getting shot walking to school."
In his address, Mr. Lee described his own progress as a filmmaker chronologically, beginning with his undergraduate years at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He discussed financing his first film, "She's Gotta Have It," on $175,000. "We never had that money in one lump sum," he said. "We literally made that film by putting our nickels, dimes and quarters together."
His nuts-and-bolts description of making it as a filmmaker clearly struck a chord with the crowd. Many of the questioners identified themselves as aspriring filmmakers, actors, actresses and fashion designers before seeking tips on how to break into the RTC film and entertainment worlds.
Mr. Lee offered several addresses, and urged students to seek internships and work in college productions. "You have to identify what it is you want to do," he told the crowd. "Once you find something that you like, you can devote your life to it."