Acclaimed writer-director Spike Lee stressed the importance of education and pursuing one’s dreams to Murray State University students Monday night, while also reminding them they must work hard if they want to achieve those dreams.
Lee was this year’s featured speaker in the MSU Presidential Lecture Series and spoke to a packed house at Lovett Auditorium. Past speakers in the prestigious series have included James Carville and Mary Matalin, Ben Stein, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Benazir Bhutto, Lech Walesa and F.W. deKlerk.
Lee said he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but his parents expected him to get a university education at Morehouse College. He said he was the third generation in his family to attend the historically black college in Atlanta, adding that his father was two years behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school.
“When I tell people that now, they’re like, ‘Your father and grandfather went to college?’” he said. “Yes! Education has always been part of the legacy of African-Americans. This other (negative) stuff happening now, that’s some other stuff. That’s not really who we are. Education has always been the foundation of who we are.
“There was a point in this country where there was ... this peculiar institution: The institution being slavery. It was against the law for slaves to read and write. It was against the law, and if you got caught reading and writing, three things could happen. You could get whipped, castrated or hung. And if you had a bad day, it would be all three.”
When that comment elicited a chuckle from the audience, Lee took the chance to take a dig at the hit movie “Django Unchained,” although he did not single out the film by name. Lee has been in the news in the last couple of months for his criticisms of the Quentin Tarantino-directed slavery movie.
“Not funny. I did not make that statement to get a laugh because there’s nothing funny — and I don’t care what movie comes out — there’s nothing funny about slavery,” Lee said to applause. “There’s nothing funny about holocausts. Nothing funny about it. I don’t care who makes the movie.”
Lee encouraged students to follow their dreams, but added that parents can often discourage those dreams because they are worried about how their children will make a living. He said parents should support their children as best they can and that he was fortunate that his mother encouraged his artistic side by taking him to many movies and plays, sometimes against his will. He also paid tribute to a film professor who inspired him to become a director after pushing him to take the Super 8 footage he shot in New York City in the summer of 1977 and turn it into a documentary.
In the question-and-answer session at the end of the speech, a student said he wanted to be a filmmaker since he was 7, but wasn’t sure if his ideas were good enough. Lee told him he needed to decide what he truly wanted to do and work toward that. Another audience member asked if it was hard getting into the film industry.
“Let me ask you something. What’s easy?” Lee said.
When asked if he thought Black History Month was still relevant, Lee said, “I still think it’s very relevant because, for the most part, African-American history is not being taught. So if we have the shortest month of the year to focus on the great contributions we’ve made as a people to help make America become the greatest country in the world, I’m all for it. I mean, it’s simple.”