The Winspear Opera House feels diverse, energetic and slightly dangerous in the way that reminds me of the first day of school. Spike Lee walks out to a standing ovation, and veteran journalist Roland Martin walks out in a caftan. Lee immediately makes a joke about how the Dallas Mavericks have lost twice to the New York Knicks, which is both true and horrifying. This would not be the last time Lee would opine upon the sports world in a wide-ranging conversation that would touch on filmmaking, sports and politics in a way that was delightful, insightful and pleasantly profane.
“Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft are going to be on the wrong side of history,” Lee said while reflecting on the protest and controversy around former NFL player Colin Kaepernick.
Lee also revealed that he no longer watches the NFL because of the Kaepernick backlash and compared the blacklisting of Kaepernick to what happens to Marlon Brando’s character in the classic film On The Waterfront. Lee believes that the NFL did collude to oust Kaepernick after he took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Lee said he was particularly incensed about the fact that anyone would question the patriotism of Kaepernick and other black Americans.
“I don’t wanna hear that black people aren’t muthafuckin' patriotic,” Lee says. He referenced Crispus Attucks, a black man who was the first person killed in the American Revolution. He also noted that although black Americans made up 11% of the country's population, 32% of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were black.
Lee further asserted that Nazi prisoners of war were treated better by the United States than black soldiers during World War II. He was only warming up then, and the crowd at the Winspear was hanging on his every word.
“In 1492, Christopher Columbus was a terrorist,” Lee continued. “This country is built on lies, slavery, stolen land and the genocide of the Native Americans.”
While watching the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump, who Lee refers to as Agent Orange, he wondered why politicians on both sides so lovingly invoke the founders of this country. “George Washington owned 132 slaves. ...Thomas Jefferson may have been a pedophile,” Lee said. He concluded the most animated section of his talk by reflecting on how he felt as a young person when he learned the more hidden, much darker facts about our country. “If I get those chances as a filmmaker, I gotta tell these stories, you gotta tell the truth,” Lee says.
The conversation also included how Lee felt receiving his first — and by most accounts, long overdue — Oscar this year. Particularly, he focused on his joint Do The Right Thing not even being nominated in a year when Driving Miss Daisy won for Best Picture.
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“As an artist, you have to be really careful about who you get to validate you,” Lee told the audience. The most important validation for Lee comes from people who tell him how his films have positively affected their lives, which he refers to as “receiving mini-Oscars.”
As a moderator, Martin had an easy and intimate rapport with Lee that brought out a playful camaraderie in both of them. When talking about his upbringing, Lee described his parents as being “woke” and told a story about how his grandmother would color in his mother’s dolls and birthday cards. He was instilled with the values of black excellence, the idea that you had to be 10 times better than your white counterparts.
“My mother was profane. ... She would say 'fuck fair,'” Lee remembered.
Perhaps most important to Lee’s legacy are the many black people both behind and in front of the camera he granted first breaks into the film industry, including Halle Berry, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. At a remarkably youthful 62, Lee has been able to tell the truth and maintain a level of unparalleled excellence over 40 years of filmmaking, while navigating a film industry and country that certainly have not been fair.