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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Spike Lee addresses campus

By Hattie Stahl, Shannon Mills

In an event that filled Kagin Ballroom last Friday, filmmaker Spike Lee addressed the Macalester community, touching on issues ranging from choosing a college major, to preparing his new documentary on Hurricane Katrina.
The Black Liberation Affairs Committee (BLAC), in coordination with the President’s office, the American Studies Department, and the Program Board, paid $25,000 to bring Lee, a critically acclaimed director of numerous narrative films, documentaries, commercials and music videos, to campus. The event was part of a series of events celebrating Black History Month.
Brittany Lewis ’09, Political Chair of BLAC, opened the event. Lewis, along with other members of BLAC, was in large part responsible for bringing Lee to campus, according to President Brian Rosenberg.

“When [BLAC] sat down to start planning Black History Month events, we decided that Macalester needed an innovative way to celebrate blackness,” Lewis said. “It’s about reclaiming what is portrayed as the black experience.”

Rosenberg, who spoke after Lewis, referenced the recent “politically incorrect” party that has sparked discussion about racial stereotypes and tolerance on campus.
“Recent incidents remind us that Black History month is a critical opportunity to confront, explore, and challenge,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg passed the microphone to Jane Rhodes, Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, who remarked on the number of students in attendance.
“This is a wonderful sight, and sign of the energy and commitment of Macalester to critical analysis and study of multiculturalism,” Rhodes said.

Tickets for the event were gone within the first hour they were available to the Macalester community, Rosenberg said. Every seat in Kagin was filled, and the event was also broadcast to an overflow crowd in the John B. Davis Lecture Hall.
Lee took the stage to a standing ovation. “I enjoy speaking to young, intelligent minds,” he said.

The beginning of Lee’s speech focused on encouraging students to make the most of their college years and choice in major. “Make your choice based upon what it is you love,” Lee said. “I’ve been fortunate in my life to be able to do that.”

Citing his family’s artistic background, and his grandmother’s financial support for his education at Morehouse College in Atlanta and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Lee spoke of the importance of surrounding oneself with positive, supportive people.
“Negative people will drag you down,” he said.

Lee said that his passion for filmmaking arose during the summer of 1977, after his sophomore year of college. Living in Brooklyn, he spent the summer filming his neighborhood, including spontaneous disco parties and the events surrounding that year’s New York City blackout.

“I was determined that the richness of the African American culture that I could see on the street corner and out of my window – to put that on screen. The good and the bad; if something’s truthful, that’s good enough.”

According to Lee, he has often struggled to get his films made within the Hollywood system. “It’s not that they don’t want to make black films,” he said. “They just want to make a certain type of black film … If it’s not a comedy, rap/drug/shoot-em-up, it’s really hard to get it through,” Lee said.
The problem, Lee said, is that Hollywood studios lack people of color in management positions and thus are out of touch with African-Americans.
“For things to change today, people of color have to get in those gate-keeping positions,” Lee said.
In preparation for Lee’s visit, his recent documentary on Hurricane Katrina, “When the Levees Broke,” was shown all week in John B. Davis Lecture Hall. Lee touched on the film at the end of his talk.

“One thing that amazed me was that, going in, I didn’t realize how funny [the film] was going to be, but it captured the spirit of the people.”

“Things aren’t back to normal in New Orleans,” Lee said. “It still looks like a bomb was dropped yesterday … people are still struggling.”

In response to several questions about the role of an artist in today’s society, Lee said that each artist has to make an individual choice about what role to play.
“Some artists want to use their art to have a direct impact on the world today,” he said. “Others want to create pleasure.”

“For me, I walk the tightrope of entertaining but with substance,” Lee said. “It’s very hard, and I’ve not always been successful, but it’s always been my goal.”

The final question asked Lee’s opinion on being labeled a black filmmaker.
“I’ve never been upset about the word black in front of filmmaker,” he said. “But it’s a personal choice. In my household, we just never thought black was negative.”

“The reality is, we’re not at a place in this country where people don’t notice race first, we’re just not there,” he said.
Many students expressed frustration with Lee’s initial advice about choosing a college major and how little he mentioned “When the Levees Broke.”

“I wanted him to talk more about the movie,” Vendela Engblom ’07 said. “As my friend put it, ‘You just made this amazing movie, why aren’t you talking about it?'”

Still, many students said they appreciated Lee’s discussion of his own development as an artist and the challenges he has faced in Hollywood.

“The talk got better as he went on … he was so honest about how he’s had to struggle to get where he is,” MaryBeth Grewe ’10 said.

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