Do the right thing, do what you love

Spike Lee kicks off Montreal’s International Black Film Festival and talks film and racism in America

Legendary director Spike Lee talked filmmaking, racism in America and “Agent Orange” at the Cinéma Impérial on Sept. 26 as part of the 14th edition of the Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBFF).

Moderated by MIBFF founder Fabienne Colas, “An Intimate Evening with Spike Lee” was two hours of valuable advice from the star whose latest film, BlacKkKlansman, won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Lee had a lot to say about how to make it in the film industry. “I’m not going to stand on this stage, lie and tell you this stuff is easy,” he said. “People do not understand how hard it is in this industry… It is hard to make a horrible film. It is hard to make a horrible film, let alone a good film.”

Colas interjected with, “How hard is it, Spike?”

“Hard as shit,” he replied, adding that the idea of overnight success that has become popular with this generation is particularly harmful. “No such thing,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. You might not hear the hard shit, but nobody worthwhile just popped up out of nowhere.”

According to Lee, a common reason people don’t follow their dreams is because they feel pressured to make their parents proud. “Parents kill more dreams than anybody,” he said. “It’s not because they’re evil, but parents want more for their children than what they got.”

Adopting the persona of a stern parent, Lee continued: “Me and your mother have taken out a second mortgage on our house to put your black ass through school so you could be a poet? A dancer? A writer? As long as you’re black and in my house, eating my food, wearing my clothes, you’re going to get a good damn job, and you’re going to get paid every two weeks.”

The crowd erupted with knowing laughter. Lee looked out over the audience.

Parents, you know who you are … Please, do not crush your children’s dreams.”

Lee, who teaches film classes at New York University, asked the crowd to raise their hands if they’d seen any of the movies he asks his students to watch. He made his way through the list and then repeated the activity, this time naming the five Spike Lee movies he thinks are most important to see in terms of the messages they convey.

Lee said he was impressed by the amount of people who’d seen some of his lesser-known projects. He occasionally yelled, “Don’t lie!” when he suspected the audience might be trying to impress him. Was it so hard to believe that a theatre full of Spike Lee fans had actually seen most of his movies?

Colas commended Lee’s consistent activism through his films and documentaries—citing Do the Right Thing and 4 Little Girls as examples—and sought his opinion on the firing of American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“Number one, the NFL is guilty of collusion,” Lee said, prompting what was easily the loudest audience reaction of the night. “In no way, shape or form was the act of kneeling about disrespecting the military and the flag. Americans can be stupid sometimes, and they took that, hook, line and sinker. That was about bringing light to how black people are treated in the United States of America,” he said, adding that the United States was built by black people after the land was stolen from Native Americans.

“The NFL owners, they’re going to be on the wrong side of history,” Lee said. He sighed and shook his head. “And then this guy in the White House: Agent Orange… I think the mistake some people are making when they look at Agent Orange is they think—when they look at BlacKkKlansman—that this doesn’t happen in the United States of America … It happens all over the world.”

Even today, I have meetings where I’m the only black person in the room. So a whole lot of work needs to be done.”

Lee urged the crowd to follow their dreams. “You do what it takes to do what you love,” he said. “I say my prayers every night because I’m doing what I love. The majority of the people on this earth go to their grave having worked a job they hate.”

BlacKkKlansman is currently screening at select theatres in Montreal.

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