When Spike Lee came to town

By Michael Vass | February 19, 2015

On February 19, 2015, famed film director Spike Lee came to Binghamton University to speak for a scheduled 2 hours in an open to the public event. The event was free, held at the Binghamton University Events Center. It was billed as a talk which would then be followed by a question and answer period.

Credit: www.tommedvedich.com

Image as found at www.tommedvedich.com

At the outset, cameras of any sort were not allowed at the event. Like most who attended cell phones were on hand and active when Mr. Lee took the stage. One of the first words after introducing himself to the audience of some 225+ in attendance, Mr. Lee requested that all cell phones to be turned off and the ringers shut off as well. It seemed like Mr. Lee had the intention to share his personal thoughts and insights with the audience, and I honestly considered not writing about the event at all. But then Mr. Lee stated that the audience shouldn’t worry as they would all be able to make it home to see Empire. Such a statement, at the beginning of an event tends to foreshadow what will happen next.

Mr. Lee then spent the better part of a half hour introducing himself to us. He spoke about growing up in Brooklyn. He spoke about how he was introduced to his first camera. He talked about how he spent the summer of 1977 filming the blackout and looting and the explosion of Disco throughout the city. He even touched upon how he was inspired to create his first film for his classmates and how that experience moved him, focused his attention and allowed him to be able to strive for a goal of a career that he loved, and not just jobs that paid well.

But for all of the sharing, the talk seemed just shy of breaking into a serious reveal of who Spike Lee is and what motivates him. Perhaps it was because of the fact that of the 3000 anticipated to attend the event by the Press & Sun newspaper, the turnout was maybe 1/10 that amount. Perhaps it was the cold winter weather, which could have sapped some of his vigor for the evening. Or it may have been that even though Mr. Lee started the night by explaining that he is likely most known for controversial and race related films yet he has done some 30 films to date – covering topics as diverse as heist films (Inside Man), to Crime Thriller (son of Sam), to a remake of the South Korean cult film Oldboy. Still, with that said Mr. Lee spent the better part of the night speaking about race, connecting it to almost ever part of what he had to say and most answers to questions he gave. There was a fair portion of Mr. Lee’s political views as well. Again, even with these topics, it seemed that nothing beyond the surface was really scratched.

I would love to tell you about the motivations Mr. Lee has had for various films he has made, but he never shared that. He did state that he felt that there needs to be more imagery on people of color and women, in movies and television, and that he felt part of his purpose was to tell truthful stories of and with these people. But how that feeling lead to She’s Gotta Have It, or School Daze, or even Malcolm X I don’t know.

I know that Mr. Lee believes that there are a host of talented directors, actors, and actresses of color out there. He believes that Hollywood and television need to broaden the chances for these actors to show the talent and skill they possess. Mr. Lee shared a litany of actors and actresses whose first film role was in one of his films – something he has tried to do in every film he has made.

I now also know that Mr. Lee believes in hard work as being critical for success. He explained how he sees, to an extent, that the youth of today are too used to instant gratification. That success must be striven for and earned if it is to occur at all – no matter the color of skin of the individual.

I wish I could say that I know far more about Mr. Lee, but I can’t. I wish I knew more about the television show Mr. Lee is trying to get launched but he didn’t explain anything about it. I wish I knew more about how he raised money for his first film, or how that was different than his experience funding a film with Kickstarter, but he never delved into that. I personally wanted to ask about if there was any film that he could make, on any topic, without question on getting funding, what would that film be about and why? But Mr. Lee seemed content in taking questions primarily from the reserved seats in the audience, skimming over answers to the questions given to him, and touching on his personal political views (which I certainly would have loved to hear far less about).

In the end, Mr. Lee spent some 65 minutes out of an expected 120 minutes with the people and students of Binghamton. Mr. Lee noted that it was late and he had a long drive to make in the cold – something that may be true of any number of the members of the audience above the average age of a BU student. Then I remembered that Empire was on tonight, and Mr. Lee stated he was a fan of the show. Too bad I was a fan of many of his films, and not of his politics or most of his views on race in America.

I would like to say that anyone who missed the Spike Lee event at Binghamton University tonight missed something special, but I cannot. Maybe there was a personal or family issue that had him distracted. Maybe he expected a larger audience like those he has had at colleges he has spoken at since 1988. It could have just been an off night, we are all just human. But I can only comment on the brief time I shared with Spike Lee. Hopefully, one day I may get an answer to the questions that were left half answered or unsaid, but in Binghamton, NY tonight was not that day.

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