Spike Lee criticizes media

Director Spike Lee speaks to a crowd of about 240 at an Afro-American Cultural Center Dean's Tea at the Whitney Humanities Center.
Director Spike Lee speaks to a crowd of about 240 at an Afro-American Cultural Center Dean's Tea at the Whitney Humanities Center. Photo by Rachel Wang.

Filmmaker Spike Lee is proud of the New York Yankees but not the founding fathers.

Sporting a Yankees baseball cap and blazer, Lee coolly denounced presidential forefathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the main reason anti-black sentiment still exists in the media.

Lee was critical of the image of black people in the media at his Dean's Tea Monday.
Lee was critical of the image of black people in the media at his Dean's Tea Monday.

“We should blame this founding father s—. Those motherf—ers owned slaves,” he said.

As part of the Dean’s Tea series, the Afro-American Cultural Center hosted filmmaker Spike Lee in a discussion of his work Monday at the Whitney Humanities Center. Lee, whose notable films include “Bamboozled,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” spoke to about 240 students and faculty, answering questions from moderator and director of undergraduate studies for Film Studies Terri Francis about the image of black people in American mainstream media and his connection to Michael Jackson. Later, he gave a preview of a previously unreleased Michael Jackson music video he directed for the song “This Is It.”

Lee began discussing his family’s strong emphasis on education. His parents valued exposing their children to the arts and higher education, so it was no surprise that he attended Morehouse College and that his brother, David Lee ’83, graduated from Yale, he said.

“On my block [in Brooklyn] where I grew up, you got just as many props for being smart as for athletic ability or knowing how to talk to girls,” Lee said. He added the opposite now occurs in the current generation, that young black adolescents who academically excel are ostracized.

Later, Lee said one his main problems with today’s mainstream media is the misrepresentation of black people. He cited historical examples such as Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in blackface, as well as the continuation of brands such as Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima syrup.

The media, Lee said, is powerful because it influences how people dress and think, so the repercussions of this misrepresentation can be deep.

“When little kids grow up, they don’t want to be Indians, they want to be John Wayne,” he said.

Lee also showed a preview from his newest project, a Michael Jackson music video he directed before the star’s death last summer. When Lee asked the audience how many people had already seen “This is It,” the newly-released Michael Jackson biopic, only two students raised their hands.

“That’s it? Can you all not afford to see movies?” he joked. He then asked if anyone planned not to see the movie, and no hands went up.

Lee said that his friendship with Michael Jackson grew out of his childhood love for the Jackson 5; he owned Michael Jackson lunch box and had an Afro like Michael Jackson’s so that the girls at school would like him.

Lee said that prior to Michael Jackson’s death, the only MJ album on his iPod was “Off the Wall.” When he died, however, Lee downloaded everything Michael Jackson iTunes had, a total of eight hours of music.

Students interviewed said they thought the talk was both insightful and interesting.

Frank Cirillo ’11 said that some of Lee’s comments were enlightening, especially those about the importance of education in the African-American community and ghetto culture as a self-perpetuating problem.

Stuart Pliskin ’13, who posed the last question of the event, asked what Lee, who is an avid Knicks fan, proposed to do about the losing record of the basketball team this season.

“Can you feature Lebron James in one of your movies?” he said.

Even though Lee did not give a definite answer, he did say he takes comfort from the Knicks’ losses in the Yankees’ 27th World Series win.

This was Lee’s fourth visit to Yale in the past decade.


  • Domination

    Not to be naive, but didn’t Thomas Jefferson also allow his power and influence to inappropriately influence Sally Hemmings in obtaining his “consensual” relationship with her?

    Aren’t we talking about the same thing with Michael Jackson,putting the issue of age-appropiateness aside?

    Slavery and Segregation: National Mental Illness
    September entry http://theantiyale.blogspot.com

  • SHelton Lee Fan

    Alright now Spike! Preach!

  • Alum

    The DNA test showed a Jefferson male fathered a child with a slave, it did not conclusively prove it was Thomas Jefferson. There were other Jefferson male possibilities with the means/opportunity. Not saying he is not the one, just that this has been assumed beyond what the science can conclusively show.

  • Grd ’13

    Spike was paid a lot of money to come speak to my alma mater. Arrangements were made through his media company and everyone was excited. Tickets sold out. Five days before his arrival, he called the president of the University to announce that he would only speak to a black audience or he wouldn’t speak at all. It was explained to him that tickets had already been sold and the auditorium could fit more than the entire black community of the region. He insisted that he would not speak to any other races. On the day of his arrival, he canceled. I heard that it was difficult to get a refund from the media company as well. Class act. I’m not sure why anyone gives this guy a soapbox.

  • The Contrarian

    As I cannot do very much about 18th-century injustices, I can only choose not to see movies made by black racists nor buy recordings by child molesters.

  • Y11

    Washington and Jefferson’s positive influence on the country (and, for that matter, the CREATION of the country) > negative influence on anti-black sentiments. Sorry Spike.

  • Elm City

    Seems he’s done quite well for himself using that very same media to spread his version of hate. Guess that makes me a racist on the Spike-O-Meter.

  • Tanner

    What a tired ditribe. I like many of Lee’s films but it seems he thinks he is the only succesful A-American film maker. His 20th century rant on the founding fathers, and the media is only popular on ivy league and their west coast partners. I suppose he needs to do these speeches to keep his street cred. Hate for him to end up like Tyler Perry.

  • Where is the Community

    It is really too bad that the Afro American Cultural Center hosted Spike Lee without ever thinking about reaching out to the broader New Haven community. Events like this are opportunities for improving the huge town/gown divide that exists in the city. I would have thought that the Center would affirmatively act to breakdown the structural racism that Yale perpetuates by sealing itself from the host community.

  • MedStudent

    Spike Lee is a hugh racist, and I’m black and can still call this out from a mile away. He is going about things very ignorantly and only sets us back. Poorly done Spike, poorly done.

  • jakob

    some of the stuff he says can be totally ridiculous (and a bit offensive), but have you seen Do The Right Thing? hard to hate a guy when he’s got that under his belt…

  • @community

    What you’re describing is classism, not racism.

    And do you really think it would be a great idea to instill MORE black racism in the New Haven community by inviting them to see this guy speak? Swell idea. Keep in mind that we sealed ourselves off because wealthy white students were getting shot (e.g. Christian Prince) for being, well, wealthy and white… not because we didn’t want to walk the same streets as poor people.

  • @@community

    Ah, yes, can’t let “the poors” get ideas, they could revolt and storm the castle!

    Not saying most of what Spike says is in the right, but you should watch your own prejudice first.

  • ’97

    Yeah, Spike, it’s the fathers who are the problem – not the founding fathers, but the absence of fathers in the black community.

  • I live there

    Buddy, haven’t you been threatened on the streets? Seen the stickers that say “Stop Yale”? That’s not prejudice, sadly this is not a healthy, communicative, desegregated population. Yale needs to behave appropriately, but don’t trick yourself into believing that you’re wanted in some parts of this city.

  • ifltirifeveryone09

    Why is it that the African American artist who was the victim of a witch hunt is still labeled a child molester, despite exoneration on all charges, while white American performers are all the victims of extortion? The answer to that question is, as Spike Lee correctly identifies–the media and its continued negative and often false portrayal of American Americans. Michael Jackson was the biggest extortion and media smear victim ever.