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10/12/05

BY PHILIP SCHWARTZ, Gazette Reporter

Spike Lee comments on race — but has few answers


He lifted a curtain to give a glimpse behind some of the iconic films of the last 20 years. He offered some fun, witty commentary on raising money for "Malcolm X." He even delivered other commentary on "gangsta rap" culture that was downright serious, even bound to stir up controversy.

But what else would you expect when Spike Lee is in the room?

The iconic American filmmaker and screenwriter came to the University at Albany’s uptown campus on Tuesday to participate in a 70-minute, afternoon Q&A session in front of a wall-to-wall crowd of approximately 450. Lee, 48, was in town with Kaleem Aftab, a British journalist who just wrote an authorized biography titled "Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It." Both participated in a reading and discussion later in the evening at UAlbany’s downtown campus. Both events were part of the state Writers Institute fall program.

During the afternoon session, perhaps the most cutting commentary from Lee — known for his sometimes cantankerous personality and controversial films on race in America — came when he was talking about gangsta rap culture. He chided — at one point to spirited applause — a culture that promotes violence and promiscuity, a culture that values ignorance over education.

"Among a large part of the African-American community, if you’re intelligent, you’re ridiculed," Lee said. "For me, that’s just genocide of the culture."

"This is not that well-known," he added, "but a majority of rap CDs are bought by white youth. That’s something to think about."

Controversy often surrounds Lee. Like his comments at Tuesday’s UAlbany session, his films can simultaneously praise and criticize African-American culture.

But he also offered a more upbeat assessment when talking about his 1992 epic "Malcolm X." When he was making the film, Lee said, because he was over budget, Warner Bros. handed control of the project to a bond company, which quickly fired a chunk of the crew, ultimately leaving Lee to raise money himself. So he turned to highly visible leaders in the African-American community and flat out asked people like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson for money to complete the project. "And I saved Michael Jordan for last. Michael is very competitive. So I told him how much Magic gave," Lee joked.

Following a Q&A, when the questions came from biographer Aftab, the UAlbany crowd had a turn with the filmmaker.

One woman, an educator working with troubled youth, wanted advice on connecting with the gangsta rap culture Lee spoke about. A student asked for ways she could break into acting. One man wanted Lee to impart wisdom to young African Americans.

But Lee, though he offered encouraging words, was quick to say he didn’t have the answers.

Coincidentally, someone in the crowd pointed out how "Do The Right Thing," Lee’s 1989 film about escalating racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, doesn’t end neatly either. That is, unlike many American films, the order of things at the end is never restored.

At the end of the movie, "the studio [practically] wanted Mookie [a black character] and Sal [an Italian-American character] . . . to sing ‘We Are The World,’ " Lee said. "But we knew that at the end of that film we couldn’t provide any answers."

Some things, he said, are too complicated for tidy, easy answers.

Reporter Philip Schwartz can be reached at 395-3111 or pschwartz@dailygazette.net.