Filmmaker and activist Spike Lee criticized rapper 50 Cent — who holds a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other in a publicity poster for his new movie “Get Rich or Die Trying” — for perpetuating negative stereotypes about black youth in front of a packed audience in the Law School auditorium on Saturday.
“This [image] is the mantra of a lot of lost young black minds,” Lee said.
During his discussion, which was the keynote address concluding the Black Solidarity Conference held by the Black Student Alliance at Yale this weekend, Lee spoke about the role of race in issues ranging from gangsta rap to the relief aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Audience members included Yale students, Dean Peter Salovey and a number of black college students from across the country. The conference, named “Reflections on the State of Black Artistry in Popular Culture,” also featured other panel discussions Friday and Saturday.
Lee said he believes popular media today instills the idea that young black men have only three options for the future: to play ball, rap or “swing on the street corner.” He said that when he was growing up, black youth valued intellectualism more highly.
“If you were going to college, you weren’t ridiculed, but that is not the case today,” he said. “You are called an ‘Oreo’ or sellout if you aren’t drinking a 40, smoking a blunt and holding your balls.”
The problem with young black men and women today, Lee said, is that they equate acting intelligently with acting “white,” a belief he said is further perpetuated by the media. He said he believes a whole generation of black youth is being brought up by television, and they need more guidance to counter the negative stereotypes in popular media.
“It’s up to you to let these artists know how you feel, that they’re selling our culture,” Lee said.
Born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, Lee returned to the South to attend Morehouse College, where he began experimenting with film and realized he had found a career he loved. Because of his distaste for standardized testing, Lee said, he later enrolled at New York University film school, which did not require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination. Lee has directed nearly 40 films — many of which address racial issues — including “Malcolm X,” “Bamboozled” and “Do the Right Thing,” which was nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Lee also gave the audience advice about life after college.
“Hopefully your major is what you love to do,” he said. “The majority of people are enslaved to their job and drag their asses to work. But I’m doing what I love.”
Students in the audience said they were impressed with Lee’s discussion.
Joanna Busby ’09 said she thought Lee’s talk was profound and that she is impressed with his career choice as an artist to produce films rather than violent gangsta rap.
“He is someone to be respected for not falling into that trap,” Busby said.
Busby said she has stopped buying offensive albums to protest the portrayal of black youth as violent and ignorant in popular media.
“It was very interesting how he put the pressure on us to initiate a change,” Jennifer Clewis, a conference attendee and student from the George Washington University said. “He gave a unique paradigm in that we can start something as individuals.”
But Stephanie Park ’08 said she felt Lee did not provide enough concrete suggestions for ways to combat negative stereotypes about black youth.
“He kept avoiding these questions,” Park said. “It would have been nice to hear more specifics.”
Lee said he has begun filming a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what he described as the racial inequalities revealed by decisions made by New Orleans officials to neglect certain neighborhoods more than others.