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Sarasota … definitely not a Spike Lee Joint

A year ago … just about this time … I attended a press conference to interview the filmmaker Spike Lee and also attended his talk that night at the Van Wezel … here’s my story and I think it’s still relevant.

In response to a recent column where I stated my support for Barack Obama as president, reader response via email included the following: “I bet [Reality Chick] dates only black men.”

I hope I don’t get lynched for this column, and excuse me for asking, but is Sarasota really as racist as that?

Speaking of questions … and race, I took some heat recently about some questions I asked film director Spike Lee last week during a press conference held in advance of his talks at the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall lecture series.

I was the only Sarasota writer or reporter who showed up at the press conference. Given Sarasota’s film festival infatuation and that the festival is only a couple of months away, I was surprised that no other local folks showed up to ask questions of an Emmy-award-winning, Academy-award-nominated filmmaker of Spike Lee’s stature.

Later that night, I attended Lee’s Town Hall lecture with a ticket I’d purchased myself (no media-comp is my point – I was there as a paying, private citizen). I was flabbergasted when after the lecture, someone spoke to me very angrily, taking me to serious task for asking “offensive questions,” being “way out of line,” and “making it racial,” during the press conference held earlier that day.

I mentally ran through the questions I’d asked Lee: had the ticket sales for his two talks been low; was the lack of local media attending his press conference typical; and did he find, in the course of researching and filming his documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, any substantiation for the theory – mentioned by Katrina survivors in the film — that the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans had been intentionally flooded because it was poor and predominantly black?

Apparently, I’d done the unforgivable in Sarasota. I’d asked questions that weren’t sugar-coated and that dealt with something beyond “So, how do you like Sarasota?”

Had I really just been reamed out for asking challenging questions – during a press conference, no less? Remember folks, this was Spike Lee I was questioning – the preeminent asker of questions about race in this country– of course I’m going to ask him about race-related issues. To his credit and as I had expected, Lee was unperturbed by my questions, and in each instance responded with classy, straightforward answers.

Is it possible that Sarasota is so provincial or that local media is so hog-tied that press conferences here must equal White House press conferences under the Bush administration – i.e., no challenging or provocative questions allowed – for God’s sake, don’t put anyone on the spot? And, sorry, but I have to ask: if I were a black writer asking those same questions, would I have been equally chastised?

I do find it odd – and disappointing — that in the several days since Lee’s appearance, there’s not been one local mention that I’ve seen, heard, or read, about his visit to this film-festival town. One young writer – Tiffany St. Martin from the Bradenton Herald — hoofed it across county lines to hear Spike speak. If you want a wake up call about the race dialog, you should read the online comments in response to her January 29 article.

Spike Lee is the first black filmmaker to present shockingly graphic illustrations of the race issues that have and continue to divide our country – and to do so with widely-distributed films that have achieved both artistic and commercial success across race, class, gender, and international lines.

He makes important, must-see films about the redemptive potential for society when it is willing to ask questions no one wants to ask and seek answers no one wants to give.

In his Town Hall lecture, and at the press conference, Spike Lee was charming, humorous, smart, very down-to-earth, and fascinating. He delivered no-holds-barred comments on politics, our president, filmmaking, education, his personal life, and whether or not the Giants would take the Superbowl. I liked him immensely.

I don’t always like everything I see in his films; I don’t always like every question about myself and my own prejudices he’s forced me to confront through his films, but Spike and I seem to agree on one thing:

Never be afraid to ask the questions. But be very, very, afraid of those who do not want the questions asked.

Posted on January 10th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
3 Responses to Sarasota … definitely not a Spike Lee Joint
  1. When Spike Lee told Clint Eastwood that he acted like an angry old man that was it for me.I have little respect for him.Just watch the movie ..Bird..1988 and you will see what Eastwood is all about.Of course the issue was about not portraying blacks in Eastwood’s films Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers…It is nonsense and listen how Eastwood responded….as he was reciting historical accuracy…..

  2. I am a black woman and Yes I enjoy Some of the things spike put out.
    I enjoy how he makes you think about things, how he put you in places to make
    you think how you would handle things if it were you. I think he has a way of telling a story that makes you think…..However I also think that he puts to much on race Im not sure he helps us move on in saying this is where we were now its time to move on. How do we move on and make it better for those that will come behind us.

  3. sometimes i think we need voices like his, though, to keep us thinking — particularly to help keep people thinking about things that they’re uncomfortable thinking about or that they deny is or has been an issue….


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