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Spike Lee promotes passion and hard work to crowd at William & Mary Hall

  • 2016 Atwater Lecture:
    2016 Atwater Lecture:  Filmmaker Spike Lee addressed a crowd of faculty, staff, students, and community members April 20 at William & Mary Hall. Topics ranged from diversity and politics to the value of a liberal arts education.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Spike Lee has a simple recipe for students looking to up their GPA next year: find what you love and pursue it.

That’s the secret to the prolific film director’s own success, after all. As a student at Morehouse College, Lee struggled with D-plus grades until a friend gifted him a Super-8 camera and some film. The rest, as the world knows, is history.

“I didn’t become an Einstein overnight,” he said. “The key is I found something I loved.”

Lee spoke of his path to success to a diverse crowd of faculty, staff, students and local community members at William & Mary Hall Wednesday night. The event, which was sponsored by Alma Mater Productions (AMP) and the W&M Student Assembly, was held thanks to support from the Janet and Peter Atwater Lecture Endowment. Lee’s roughly 80-minute presentation included a speech and question-and-answer session, and touched on topics ranging from diversity and politics to the value of a liberal arts education.

“One of the great things about a liberal arts college is it allows you to expose yourself to things you don’t know about,” he said “If you do that, you might find out you have a gift. And that’s what happened to me.”

Clad in a Knicks jersey and high-top sneakers, the prolific film director, writer, producer, and actor—whose career spans 30 years and more than 50 documentaries and films, including the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing—encouraged students to follow their passions despite opposition or roadblocks along the way.

“When I decided on filmmaking there was only one African-American director working in Hollywood,” he said. “But I never thought about the odds of me being successful. I just knew that I believed in my talent and I believed I could make films that would bring new stories dealing with African Americans to this country. With some luck, it would happen. I had a plan. And thank God this was before reality TV.”

Lee also made the conscious decision to not get married or have kids while kickstarting his career, he said. Instead, he put all of his money into film, eventually scrounging up enough through savings and donations from family and friends to put together his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. Filmed in 12 days for $175,000, the movie ended up grossing more than $7 million at the box office. That was 30 years ago in August.

During the Q&A session, Lee received questions from students seeking advice on breaking into the industry. His answer: Instead of pursuing jobs in front of the camera, consider a career behind the scenes, where there’s more longevity and decision-making power. Above all, he said, just work hard and surround yourself with positive people.

“It comes down to dedication,” he said. “You have to have an insane belief in yourself and your talent, but at the same time be humble enough to know that you don’t know everything.”