Spike Lee had just screened his new film, "School Daze," for a studio-recruited audience of 250 college students at the Baldwin Cinema in Baldwin Hills.
That's Baldwin Hills. Not Beverly Hills.
Beverly Hills is home to the Hollywood power structure, with whom the outspoken 30-year-old film maker has made an uneasy alliance after the surprise success of his 1986 low- low -budget hit, "She's Gotta Have It."
But predominantly black Baldwin Hills is an important proving ground for Lee, who seemed more delighted by the laughter and applause from his black college crowd than any critical plaudits he might receive. (Some reviewers dubbed him "the black Woody Allen," a moniker the self-described basketball-junkie hates almost as much as the Boston Celtics.)
"School Daze," Lee's first major studio film, is a "comedy with music," offering a raucous look at black college fraternity initiation rites, anti-apartheid rallies and house-quaking homecoming dances--all colored by the rivalry between two campus factions, the Wannabees and the Jigaboos.
But getting it made was serious business for Lee. He says he has constantly fought with Columbia Pictures, which he accused of trying to "ghettoize" the film in its marketing campaign. So in a 45-minute question-and-answer period, Lee was ready to slam-dunk when a student lobbed him a question about the difficulty of financing black films in Hollywood.
"I really feel I was put here on this Earth to make films for blacks," he said, his voice rising with emotion. "We go to the movies all the time, but for the most part we never see ourselves as we'd like to be or as we think we could be. But it's time to stop blaming everything on Hollywood.
"Black people just buy, buy, buy. We got to start owning stuff. And we got to stop spending so much time worrying about white people and what they think. Let's worry about what we think."
Lee was preaching now. "That's one thing this movie's about--the folks that come out of black colleges who just want to make a lot of money and buy a BMW. I got dogged by the black colleges 'cause they thought this film was a negative portrayal of black people. Well, you hear that stuff about all the other people holding us back. But it's often our own black folk that get down on us. That's got to stop--we shouldn't let that stuff come between us."
Lee shyly lowered his head as the crowd broke into applause. Tugging nervously on a pair of Nike sweats, he quickly pointed to another questioner. A slender girl in a print dress wondered: "Are you married?"
Lee laughed. "No." He cocked his head. "Next question please!"
It makes perfect sense that much of "School Daze's" drama should revolve around the thorny issue of black assimilation. Lee calls it the "crossover game." Where do you pass that fine line between making it in white society--and losing touch with your heritage?
"I don't like to preach about it," Lee said later that night, having a sandwich in his hotel room. "But my family always taught me to be proud of our heritage. I never viewed being black as a negative.
"And I always thought that if something like black music could be such a great gift to American culture, why couldn't film be the same way?"
Lee fell silent for a moment. "That whole crossover mentality is crazy. You see it with a lot of black pop singers, whose success has been based on black audiences. Suddenly they say, 'I'm tired of being on "Soul Train." I want to be on MTV.'
"The classic example is Lionel Richie. Man, his Commodores stuff was great. But look at his music now. . . . It's not just him. Diana Ross--she's gone too. And Whitney Houston. Hey, she missed the whole cycle. She was processed from the start!"
Lee shrugged. "You can be successful without playing that crossover game. But you got to believe in yourself, 'cause the media, the movie studios and the record companies--they're going to use you and then dump you, just the way that owners do in sports when a football or basketball star can't perform anymore.
"That's why you can't lose touch with your roots. 'Cause when you try to go back to your black audience, they may not take you back."
Lee was equally impatient with critics--black and white--who claim that "School Daze" perpetuates negative black stereotypes. Told that one black viewer was distressed by the film's big funk number, "Da Butt," which features an auditorium full of bikini-clad dancers gyrating to a go-go beat, Lee wearily shook his head.
"I'm always being accused of something," he said. "Those are the same people who try to disown James Brown or Muddy Waters, saying they're too backward or too country--or to use a better word--too black.
"We had the same problem trying to film at Morehouse. They booted us out in the middle of shooting there. The president of the school was upset because he heard we used (an obscenity) in the film--and if parents heard that word they wouldn't let their sons be Morehouse men."