November 18, 2011

Spike Lee gets real about race

The outspoken director discusses the "elephant in the room," contemporary race issues in America, at the 12th annual State of Race. (Photos by Carlton Mackey)

By Margie Fishman

Race is the "big elephant in the room," ever-present and waiting to bubble to the surface, according to Emmy award-winning director-producer Spike Lee.

Every so often, it takes the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the election of the first African American president in the United States, or rampant income inequality for the elephant to produce a deafening roar.

"This whole American dream for the majority of the country is going up in smoke," said Lee, speaking at Emory's State of Race dialogue on Nov. 16.

The 12th annual event, held before a packed Glenn Memorial Auditorium, featured Lee's signature no-holds-barred approach to discussing contemporary race issues in America.

Coinciding with Unity Month, an annual celebration of diversity at Emory, the event was co-sponsored by the College Council, the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services (OMPS) and the Center for Ethics. Issues Troupe, a student theater group supported by OMPS, performed a skit about racial stereotypes to open the evening.

An Atlanta native and Morehouse College graduate, Lee did not mince words when he compared Native American reservations to "concentration camps" and chastised the black community for elevating the "baller" lifestyle over educational attainment, a misguided path that is reinforced by the media.

"If you want to get to the root of race, let's see what it was based on," Lee said. "This country was founded on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans."

Lee's family was the first black family to settle in Brooklyn, New York's Cobble Hill neighborhood. His parents spoke honestly about the racial divide, particularly after Lee was denied entrance to the Cub Scouts. His grandmother saved her Social Security checks to put him through college.

"We cannot be in a place where ignorance is championed over intelligence," he said.

Lee noted that his two children, who attend expensive New York private schools, had to be "reeducated" in U.S. history after their teachers glossed over the founding fathers' slave ties.  

While filming "School Daze" at Morehouse, Lee remembered getting booted off campus by the college president, who was concerned about the movie's negative portrayal of historically black colleges and universities.    

"He thought the guy who played the college president in the movie looked too dark," Lee recalled.

Lee, who has produced more than 35 films, urged African Americans to draw strength from the experience of their ancestors, and remain unified. He took questions from the audience, registering his support for the Occupy Wall Street movement and his distaste for Tyler Perry's portrayal of African Americans in his films.  

While filming "Malcolm X," Lee recalled having to solicit donations from Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince and others after Warner Bros. shut down the three-hour production.

He encouraged President Obama to reignite the hope and energy that got him elected. Lee said he was not shocked by the "Niggerhead" controversy surrounding Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, or his opponent, Herman Cain, proclaiming that, if elected, his Secret Service code name should be "cornbread."

The Unity Month festivities conclude on Nov. 29 with Provost Earl Lewis' annual Dialogue on Race, where he will explore issues of race and community on campus.

See the Unity Month calendar for a complete schedule of events.

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