On February 25, Filmmaker Spike Lee came to Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus to give a talk in honor of Black History Month. The talk received coverage in outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, and New York Magazine, and resulted in an appearance from Lee on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

The director, whose films include Brooklyn-based Do the Right Thing, Clockers, and School Daze, attracted a strong turnout for his talk in Memorial Hall. The Pratt Presents program was co-sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of Student Involvement, and the Pratt Student Diversity Council.

After discussing his own upbringing, schooling, and the devaluing of education in certain African-American communities, Lee began taking questions from the audience, including one from Pratt alumnus D.K. Smith about gentrification that created lively discussion and debate.

Lee’s talk itself included references to his childhood in Brooklyn and what led him to a film career. He attended John Dewey High School in Brooklyn and Morehouse College, where his father and grandfather studied, in Atlanta.

Lee said he lacked direction early in college. “I was a D+/C– student,” he told the crowd. “I wouldn’t do the work.”

That changed when his friend gave him a Super 8 camera during the summer of 1977 and he began to shoot footage, which he later edited into a documentary. That’s when he realized “I want to tell stories. I want to be a filmmaker. I want to tell African-American stories in this country,” Lee said.

“My junior/senior year, I was an A+ student across the board because I was motivated,” he said.

Lee lamented the fact that education is demeaned in parts of the African-American community, rather than being highly valued, as it was amongst slaves.

“If you knew how to write—as a slave—it was your civic duty to teach others to read and write, on Sundays usually,” Lee said.

Lee talked to a wide variety of audience members, including students—from Pratt and other New York universities—asking for career advice during the Q&A session.

Toward the end of the evening, a former middle school classmate of Lee’s introduced herself.

“I just wanted to tell you hello and how very proud we are of everything you’re doing,” she said.

Lee’s talk launched the Institute’s new Pratt Presents series, high-profile events featuring distinguished guests in a variety of formats. “We are excited by the prospect of presenting original public programming built around big ideas and influential artists and thinkers. The events will inspire dialogue and discussion, and engage the public as well as the Pratt community,” said Andrea Jeyaveeran, Pratt’s new Director of Public Programs and Campus Event Services.

Text: Ruth Samuelson, Marion Hammon
Photo: Peter Tannenbaum

Caption: Spike Lee speaking at Memorial Hall on February 25