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Spike Lee: Get educated, do what you love

  • Spike Lee
    Spike Lee  The director and actor spoke to a full audience at Phi Beta Kappa Hall on Tuesday.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Spike Lee
    Spike Lee  The filmmaker brought musician Bruce Hornsby onto the stage after recognizing him in the audience.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Renowned filmmaker Spike Lee had a simple message in his show “An Evening with Spike Lee: America Through My Lens” -- get educated, find yourself, do what you love.

Lee, who was invited to speak at the College of William & Mary by the student programming board Alma Mater Productions, spoke candidly Tuesday night at Phi Beta Kappa Hall auditorium about growing up in Brooklyn and going to Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“One day, a long time ago, I was where you are,” Lee said to a packed audience of college students and members of the Williamsburg community. “It’s daunting to be a college student ... try to find what you’re doing, who you are.”

Lee admitted to being a “C- student” who had exhausted his elective options by the end of his sophomore year of college. That summer in 1977, he returned to New York City, where he was without a job and coping with the passing of his mother.

A friend gave him a camera and a box of film, so he filmed around the city, capturing dances, a summer heat wave in New York City that caused a blackout was and was accompanied by looting, and the state of fear that gripped the city during the hunt for serial killer David Berkowitz. 

“It wasn’t a bolt of lightning that hit me that I’d be a filmmaker,” Lee said. “It was something to do. I didn’t have a job.”

But something stuck with Lee. When he returned to Morehouse in the fall, he declared his mass communications major and took a class with Herb Eichelberger, a professor at Clark Atlanta University who encouraged him to make a documentary with the raw footage he shot during the summer.

“I would not be on this stage if it wasn’t for him,” Lee said. “If you have a great teacher, you cannot underestimate their impact on the rest of your life.”

Lee said his mother and his grandmother, who were both were teachers, underscored the power of education.

“There was a time in this country when it was against the law for slaves to learn how to read and write,” Lee said. “Our ancestors knew education was the way out of bondage. Our ancestors risked life and limb to be educated.”

Fast forward to 2012, the value system has been upended, Lee said. Students are being exposed to a media where ignorance is championed.

“Ignorance is at the top; intelligence is at the bottom,” Lee said.

Lee also emphasized the importance of arts in education.

“We’re a nation where education is under attack,” Lee said. “[In] my generation you had to take art, you had to take music, and take gym. We have a generation whose art classes have been cut, whose music programs have been cut, who have no gym.”

He recalled going “kicking and screaming” to museums and Broadway shows with his mother and siblings as a child. This early exposure to the arts, Lee said, shaped his decision to become a filmmaker, something he loves.

“Find out what it is that you love,” Lee said “[There’s a] big difference between what it is that you love, and what makes you a lot of money."