In his newsboy cap and jeans, Spike Lee saunters onto the stage in a packed Zellerbach auditorium. He seems irritated that he has to engage an audience of eager and inquisitive fans and scholars. He's fresh from a talk in Atlanta and is en route elsewhere after Penn. He cautions audience questions; stating he doesn't have any internship positions and you shouldn't plug your independent film. He gives single-sentence answers and refuses to repeat himself. Yet he laughs heartily while divulging past mistakes and celebrity insecurities. When your body of work is synonymous with controversy and artistry, not even speaking in stuffy halls can really bother you.
Lee opens his discussion with football because one "can find everything in sports," including racial, class or economic issues. He absently paces about as he spews good-natured hatred for all things Boston and rallies behind Eagles' Donovan McNabb. He later confronts race as it affects black artists in the entertainment industry. While noting the increasing critical mass of African-American Oscar nominees, Lee is not satisfied with the power structure in Hollywood.
With over 18 feature films, two Oscar nominations and a singular ability to spark cultural debates along the way, Lee can be easily viewed as a cinematic icon. But he still has some shit on his mind.
He recounts a UPN show a few years ago called The Secret Life of Desmond Phifer, a sitcom about slavery. Lee insists the same insensitivity would not be tolerated for a sitcom based on the Holocaust. Lee also recalls his struggles financing the biopic Malcolm X and notes that only after exhausting personal funds and soliciting favors from prominent blacks did Warner Brothers provide additional support. Yet, Warner did not extend the same resistance to Oliver Stone who at the same time was at the helm of JFK. Lee notes a lack of representation continues to undermine black art in Hollywood.
Still, Lee isn't all indigation and social crusading. Several significant and encouraging failures preceded his provocative filmmaking career. After genetics stomped all over dreams of professional baseball, Lee entered college uncertain about his future until the summer of 1977, which he spent filming the New York riots. He later studied film at NYU -- after being rejected from USC and UCLA for substandard GRE scores. His ambition created a disastrous film that never made it past pre-production due to high-flying stunts and a nonexistent budget. However, after saving soda cans for nickel deposits, he crafted a small, clever film called She's Gotta Have It. Lee urges students to spend college identifying what they love versus adhering to a "respectable" major. Because his success began the summer of 1977 when, as he puts it, "film chose me."
The last question is about Lee's thoughts on Bill Cosby's controversial comments about the African-American community. Lee defends Cosby stating "he has earned the right to say whatever" because of his commitment to blacks obtaining higher education. Considering Lee's own commitment to creating unique and probing cinematic works, one can assume Lee has earned the right to be as irritated as he wants.