Film icon takes the spotlight at two seminars
Spike Lee offers views at UAlbany on New Orleans disaster, race relations

By KENNETH AARON, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Spike Lee didn't find cinema, he said Tuesday night.
It found him.

So, too, did hundreds of people who came to a pair of seminars the filmmaker and screenwriter held at the University at Albany.

Lee, who wrote and directed movies including "She's Gotta Have It," "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X," gave listeners a dose of craft -- starting around the time he came close to getting tossed out of New York University's film school -- and added some of the controversy that has made his films so widely known.

On allegations that neighborhoods of some of New Orleans' poorest residents were sacrificed to save the homes of wealthier people: "That wouldn't surprise me," he said.

On rap music of the pimping-and-gunshots variety, and the glorification of thug life: "To me, that's just genocide," Lee said.

He was joined by Kaleem Aftab, who collaborated with Lee on "Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It." Aftab stayed in the background, playing the "Q" to Lee's "A."

Of his breakthrough, "She's Gotta Have It," Lee said it emerged after a failed project that involved car chases, helicopter stunts, and other pyrotechnics. But he wasn't ready as a filmmaker to handle such flashiness. So after that effort fizzled, he said to himself, "I'm going to write a film with two people talking in a room," he said.

And why did he cast himself, Aftab asked.

"We couldn't afford to pay anybody else," Lee said.

"She's Gotta Have It" cost $175,000. It grossed $8 million.

While both sessions were crowded, several were turned away from a packed Page Hall at UAlbany's downtown campus for the evening lecture. Lee seemed to feed more off that crowd. Not only was it closer to his age, 48, than the one that greeted him at UAlbany's main campus, but he received a standing ovation. Many of the questions between the two seminars were the same, but Lee was more expansive on some of his answers after dark.

And while many of the undergraduates who came were likely toddlers when "She's Gotta Have It" was released, and still in nursery school when the controversial race-relations movie "Do the Right Thing" came out, they still knew his work -- because now, Lee's movies are being screened in classrooms.

"I like his movies; I think he's a good director," said Racine Roland, 20, a UAlbany senior from Long Island, who has seen some of his work in class.

Of "Do the Right Thing," Lee said he didn't write it with a solution to race relations in mind. But he did try one thing he thought would improve the climate in New York City: He said he seeded the film with messages to urge New York City viewers to go out and vote against then-mayor Ed Koch.

Many of his current observations on race relations involve lamenting how youths' role models are, too often, not good ones.

"I'm black, I'm street, I'm ghetto. I can't tolerate it," Lee said. "We are all descendants of slaves, and our ancestors knew education would be one way to escape the bondage of slavery."

Kenneth Aaron can be reached at 454-5515 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Spike Lee