Who was this Spike Lee guy, anyway?
I had no idea who this famous black film director was until NAU decided to hire him to speak on January 27th. The university was aflutter, and everyone was waiting in anticipation for his appearance, one the university reportedly spent $30 thousand to make happen. A Spike Lee film festival was scheduled for the weekend before his Wednesday night talk, but excessive snow on the library’s roof canceled the screenings. One of my classes required me to view at least two of those screenings, so instead of watching “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), I was forced into watching both parts (four acts) of “When the Levees Broke,” (2006) the only Spike Lee film that was screened before his talk.
“When the Levees Broke” is a documentary about the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina relief and the way the lower class was treated in that situation. As a whole, I was impressed, angered, and inspired by it. I built my impression of Spike off that film, and admired his anti-class discrimination message. The film’s massive length of 255 minutes, emotional interviews, and evocative images led me to conclude that Spike is an excellent filmmaker, and it got me excited for his talk.
Ardrey Auditorium appeared crowded as expected, and I found my way inside. The auditorium had plenty of open seats, so either a lot of people were running late or the sold-out audience didn’t care enough to show up. (This is what happens when you give all students access to free tickets.) Nearby Cline Library was providing overflow seating with a live video feed. The pre-recorded announcement played asking the audience that no flash photography is allowed and to silence their cell phones and pagers; someone near me remarked how dated it was.
Three NAU faculty members gave introductions for Spike, one of whom was my Intro to African American Studies professor, Dr. Ricardo Guthrie. They each gave interesting snippets of who Spike Lee is, the work he’s done, and the context of his visit on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The audience was pumped.
The lights dimmed, Dr. Guthrie introduced Spike, and a short man with an orange baseball cap shadowing his eyes walked to the middle of the stage next to a stool. The audience cheered wildly, and once the clapping settled, Spike began his talk.
But it was only that: talk. Not a lecture or a speech. He greeted us by saying, “It’s great to be here at… this university.” A half-hour into it, and the structure of what Spike was saying resembled an old man mumbling about his hey-days. A few comments here about racism, a few comments there about how much struggling he endured as an aspiring filmmaker, and it was time for the Q and A section. That was it? Maybe the whole reason he’s really here is so we can pick his brain for insight.
It might have been the way we asked the questions, but it was obvious Spike was not interested in us or what we had to ask. Many of the question-posers felt compelled to give a 2-3 minute personal biography to Spike before asking anything. One asshole even pitched his documentary after Spike explicitly asked us not to. Still, the answers he gave were half-assed and thoughtless. Two examples: A Hopi woman asked what Spike was thinking about doing in terms of a native American documentary, similar to “When the Levees Broke,” on the plight of the natives and their mistreatment. Spike thought for a good 15 seconds and gave a blanket slavery comparison answer. It was painfully obvious that he didn’t care as much about them as he did Katrina victims, but not everyone in the audience seemed to catch on to that.
I had the opportunity to ask him the fourth question of the night. “When Edward R. Murrow was still with us, he implied that television would become some sort of light box and dissipate our minds and our culture. Do you agree with that, or what are your thoughts on television today?” This was a valid question to ask this filmmaker because he mentioned during his mumbles that reality TV is “the plague.” Spike’s answer: “It’s the content, not the medium.” He then mentioned that he watched a show called The Wire and continues to watch SportsCenter and the news. Next question.
Did NAU opt not to pay the extra ten grand to get the premium Spike Lee package, where he actually gives a shit about his audience? Why did some in the audience revere him like a god and ask him for philosophical advice during the Q and A? And what prompted the standing ovation for the man with the eye-shrouding cap and bad attitude? Though he might be a great film director and well-known, Spike Lee is a selfish asshole who presented himself to be more like the people he condemned through “When the Levees Broke,” the kind of people that consider themselves to be higher and others lower. Spike saw an opportunity for a quick buck and got away scott-free. Oh, and I recently learned more about film making from a YouTube movie reviewer than this famous director.
So, who did this Spike Lee guy think he was, anyway?