Most of those who sat in the audience as Spike Lee spoke Monday night did so in silence. Somewhere between inspirational words of wisdom and a stern professorial lecture, Lee’s speech was enough to make any student think twice before stepping blindly into the real world, but also enough to encourage anyone to do just about anything.
Presented by Main Campus Program Board, the event featured Lee as he told of living without heat and electricity in his Brooklyn apartment, crying in his bathtub after his first failed film and finally being able to do what he loves. Lee made sure to note that his current good fortune was no overnight occurrence.
“People think there’s such thing as overnight success,” Lee said to the Mitten Hall audience. “But if you wanna do anything, you have to bust your ass.”
Throughout the evening, the acclaimed filmmaker, NYU professor and parent played many roles, all of which seemed to come accompanied with words of wisdom and a story.
Lee explained that he had no idea of his filmmaking future, but after his sophomore year at Morehouse University in Atlanta, Georgia, he returned home to Brooklyn and spent the summer filming with his new Super 8 video camera. After that summer, in 1977, Lee returned to school and declared a major in mass communications.
“Once I made that choice, every single choice I made was geared toward [the question], how am I going to be successful?” Lee said. “People ask me how I chose filmmaking. I say, filmmaking chose me.”
Next, Lee applied to film school, eventually entering and graduating from New York University. But once he finished school, his confidence soared and his success went the opposite way. “I was stupid,” Lee said. “I thought I could just sit by the phone and wait for it to ring.”
Then came his lonely, lightless apartment in Brooklyn.
“But then a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the phone to ring,” Lee reminisced. “I realized I had to, as my mother would say, ‘get off my skinny, rusty butt,’ and make something happen.”
Although his first film never made it past preproduction due to funding issues, Lee continued to learn from every mishap that came his way.
“The people that get through hurdles and hardships are the ones that are doing something they love,” he explained.
His next film, She’s Gotta Have It, finally gave him the success he had worked so hard for. The incredible pay day that followed the film may have been something that Lee stumbled upon, but regardless of his income, he was doing what he loved.
“While we were shooting the film, we saved empty soda cans and bottles and used nickels to buy three roles of film,” Lee said. “I never said, ‘I wanna find the major that makes me the most money.’ The most important thing I can say tonight is, you have to find out what it is that makes you happy.”
Lee went on to stress to his audience the importance of finding a job you love to do, even in the face of adversity.
“Parents kill more dreams than anybody,” Lee said, repeating himself to emphasize the point. “Not because they’re mean or evil, but most want more for their children than they had.”
As it so happens, Lee, a parent himself, got much support from his parents, as well as his grandmother, who paid for him to attend both Morehouse as well as NYU.
“When I told people at Morehouse I wanted to be filmmaker, they said I couldn’t,” Lee said. “The same way, two years ago, you could have told someone, as an African-American male, you wanted to be president of the United States of America. They would’ve said no then.”
During the question and answer period following his speech, Lee answered questions about his past movies, gentrification in inner cities and even the new President, among others.
“I think that with Obama being here, it’s going to be great inspiration for everybody,” Lee said. “Black and white. And yellow. And brown.”
As the audience emptied the building following Lee’s conclusion, they left with as many words of advice.
“We chose [Lee] because we admire his work and felt that he is a pioneer who could impart Temple with some of his wisdom,” said Latavia Alexander, co-chair of on campus events for MCPB. “Based on that, I thought the lecture was a great success. It was an amazing way for Main Campus Program Board to end the semester.”
Gabriel Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.