Doing the Right Thing | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Before he was a well-known filmmaker, Spike Lee was just an ordinary college student drifting aimlessly through his early years of college, he told a sea of students and city residents on March 31, inside David Lawrence Hall, in Oakland.

Lee, invited to speak by the University of Pittsburgh's Black Action Society, gave advice to all -- but mainly students.

"If you fuck around your first two years" of college, he says, "you find it hard to recover from."

His audience, a diverse group, was packed inside the hall as tight as sardines. Still others lined up outside the hall, listening attentively as Lee told them his life's mantra: Do what you love.

During his undergraduate years at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Lee witnessed some of his peers work hard to enter careers preferred by their parents.

"Parents kill more dreams than anybody," he said.

Lee, who said he was fortunate to have a family that supported him, began to look for a career he was passionate about.

When he returned home to Brooklyn in the summer of 1977, he began to film his surroundings with a Super 8 camera he had received as a gift.

That year, he filmed the madness in Brooklyn that grew from paranoia over the "Son of Sam" killings, the poor job market and the weather: It was among the hottest summers he could remember.

That camera, and that atmosphere, helped spark a career. The footage turned into "The Last Hustle in Brooklyn," one of Lee's earliest films. (Lee's 1999 feature film Summer of Sam also recounts the era.)

After graduating from Morehouse, he enrolled in New York University's film program. Since then, Lee has amassed a great deal of respect for his films, including Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, The 25th Hour and his most recent, Miracle at St. Anna.

Yet, says Lee, "I wasn't motivated [in college]."

For audiences to understand his experience at Morehouse, he recommended they watch his movie School Daze, which recounts his undergraduate career.

One of the characters, Half-Pint, was based on Lee himself. Half-Pint was not popular with girls and had difficulty adjusting to people who seemed to change personalities once joining a fraternity. Unlike Lee, Half-Pint eventually dissolved his insecurities by joining a fraternity.

"I wanted to use the black college experience as a microcosm for the black experience," said Lee, who offered criticisms of the pledging experience.

Lee also took questions.

Asked about the obstacles filmmakers face, Lee answered that everything "always comes down to financing." While filming Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington, Lee asked many prominent African-Americans to help fund the production, which required location shooting in Africa. While his persistence paid off, said Lee, that strategy was something that "you can only do one time."

Yemi Adewunmi, president of the Black Action Society, said the group invited Lee because of his perspectives. "He's a very dynamic person," said Adewunmi.

In closing, Lee, who is known for illustrating themes on race, said, "I want to try to put the richness of the African-American experience on screen."

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