By Chris Murray
For the Sunday Sun
ABOVE PHOTO: Spike Lee speaks to guests and media about his project highlighting ads for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
NEW YORK—While there are a great many things that you can say about the work of award-winning director Spike Lee, the most obvious is that it shows a personal reverence for African American history and culture.
Whether he’s a shooting an epic film or a commercial selling sneakers, Lee refuses to engage in any project that would in any way demean the image of African-Americans.
That was something he made clear during a dinner earlier this week announcing a series of television and print advertisements that he directed for his company Spike DDB highlighting Chevrolet’s support of the National Martin Luther King Monument in Washington, D.C. The commercials began airing nationally during MLK day weekend.
“We respect the African American market.” Lee said. “We’re sophisticated consumers and that respect needs to given. If you took all the money African Americans make, we’d be the 12th largest country in the world. That’s a tremendous amount of buying power and far too often that’s been taken for granted. We’re very grateful that Spike DDB was given a chance in this rebirth of GM.”
During his presentation, Lee talked about the great migration of African Americans from the South in the early 20th Century to industrial centers like Detroit and how the automobile factories like General Motors gave jobs to African Americans.
“We came up from the South to leave all the Klan and what not behind and we came up through the trains from Mississippi and Georgia to Detroit because they were hiring Black folks,” Lee said. “That’s something that we should never forget the legacy of Detroit—Joe Louis and Motown. It’s very important because it put us to work and we have to own that legacy.”
Lee’s reverence for history comes from his grandmother, who lived to be 100 and was the daughter of a slave. His grandmother’s mother got her college degree from Spelman College in Atlanta as did his grandmother and mother.
“When you think about it, slavery was not that long ago. 1865 was four and five generations and so we’re not that far removed,” Lee said.
After the formal proceedings, Lee took some time just to kick it and talk about the current state of Black America. His biggest concern was over the high drop out rates of young Black males and the idea that it’s now cool not to be a good student among African American kids.
“When I grew up in Brooklyn we never made fun of anyone who was smart.,” Lee said. “You got as much love as brother man who could play ball or the brother man who could talk to the ladies. It was unheard of to say somebody was not Black because they were smart, because they got straight A’s or speak correct English. That’s not the case today. Now, it’s like if you do those things, you’re like white or sell out.”
When it comes to history, Lee is bothered by the lack of appreciation that young people, regardless of race, for those that came before them. While he understands it to be generational, Lee there are just some things folks ought to know.
“You still knew who Jackie Robinson was, you still knew Harriet Tubman was because your parents told you,” Lee said smiling.
Lee pointed out that the reverberation from the crack cocaine epidemic from the 1980s and 1990s devastated the family structure in the Black community. Additionally, he also pointed out that in the quest for integration, Black-owned business suffered as well.
“It was a double-edge sword,” Lee said. “There was a price, we were fighting to getting the same service that everyone was getting, but at the same, once we got that stuff that began the demise of Black business. A great example was the Negro Leagues and Black hotels. In our eagerness to spend our money with the white folks who denied us so long that we abandoned Black businesses.”
Even with all of his success as a filmmaker, Lee said that it’s still difficult to make films in this difficult economy that aren’t in the genre of 3-D, Sci-fi or the ones that exploit the various stereotypes of African American. He said his movie, Bamboozled, which was released back in 2000 foreshadowed what he feels is the current state of affairs in Black film.
“That film really had a crystal ball to where we are now as a people and unfortunately we’ve been relegated to a lot of minstrel things in film and TV,” said Lee, who has been critical of filmmakers like Tyler Perry. “The sad part is that the people today who engage in it don’t understand what they’re doing. The love of money has outweighed everything else. I’m not necessarily naming names. But Black people want to see that stuff, and so you can’t just hate on those guys because they’re making money.”
While every filmmaker has their own ideas on how to entertain and engage in story-telling, Lee is a firm believer that you can entertain audiences and have them walk out of the theater more informed than when they walked in.
“For me personally, I always thought that you can entertain, but it’s not mindless entertainment and have stuff that has some validity and some weight and that’s always been my thing,” he said. “No matter how serious the subject manner, I’ve always tried to inject some humor.”
In terms of his film projects for 2011, Lee he has some plans in the works, but was mum on about the specifics of those projects.
“My goal this year is to get a feature film made, my last film was two years ago, Miracle at St. Anna, so I got several projects,” Lee said with a smile. “If God’s willing, the creek’s going to rise.”