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Spike Tells Cautionary Film Tales at UC Irvine

April 29, 1993|JESS BRAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Spike Lee was just about a year late to his speaking engagement at UC Irvine, but no one doubted his excuse: On April 30, 1992, even the celebrated filmmaker couldn't make his way through a traffic-choked Southern California then reeling at the height of the Los Angeles riots.

Lee's 1989 film, "Do the Right Thing," had culminated in a riot sparked by circumstances similar to those that provoked the '92 riots--an irony he was quick to address when he finally appeared at the Bren Events Center here Tuesday night.

"I really did want to speak that night," he told the audience, which filled about a third of the 5,000 seats in the arena. "I was feeling a lot of hurt, a lot of anger, a lot of rage" after the acquittals of four L.A. police officers accused of assaulting black motorist Rodney King. "I understood perfectly why people were reacting the way they did.

"That is not to make a judgment on it, but I understood when I wrote 'Do the Right Thing' that people would react the way they did in that film" when they saw an unarmed black man killed by police.

Lee said he is withholding judgment on the recent federal trial of the officers, which resulted in two convictions, until sentencing in August.

But, as he does in his films, he leavened any outrage with wry humor. He noted that where King was beaten by police, his own experience with the LAPD was more akin to that of most East Coast visitors: While working as an intern at Columbia Pictures, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker "got a ticket for jaywalking," he recalled with astonishment.

"There might still be a warrant out for my arrest," Lee said, "if Mr. (Daryl F.) Gates had looked into his computer while he still had the gig" as chief of police.

Lee, however, had not come primarily to voice his views on Southern California policing. On a lecture circuit that includes UC Berkeley and the University of Utah, he is out to lend his largely youthful audience an insight into his experiences as a filmmaker and his views on the motion picture industry.

"The influence of film really dawned on me going to see these karate films on 42nd Street," he said. "When the films came out, you had 5,000 people going up 42nd Street with flying kicks. It was only because of the influence of what they just saw, these Bruce Lee films, people hitting each other upside the head with their nunchuks."

Lee chose to depict "the richness of African culture that was around me" while he was growing up. "I never saw this on the screen and it bothered me."

To an audience that came ready to bury him with their own resumes and screenplays, Lee told cautionary tales that stressed self-reliance. After winning a student Academy Award for his New York University film school project, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads," he had figured "I could just sit by the phone and wait for Columbia and Paramount and Warner Bros. and Spielberg and Coppola and everybody else to call me because they knew who I was.

"So I waited and waited and I tried to wait some more before the phone was cut off." When that didn't work, he said, he began to assemble independent backing for his films, eventually producing "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986. It cost $175,000 to make and earned more that $8 million.

The trick, Lee said, was making the film with "no insurance, no unions. The crew worked on deferment, if that." While he urged the students to make films on their own, he did encourage them to send him their screenplays and resumes if they want to work with his company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.

He declined to say much about his upcoming film, "Crooklyn," which depicts growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1970s. He did, however, speak at length about his more recent picture, "Malcolm X," complaining that news reports unfairly focused on its budget overruns and that its star, Denzel Washington, did not receive the Oscar for best actor.

"I say this not to spite or dis Al Pacino, who is one of the greatest actors living, but the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) has a strange way of working," Lee said. "If Al Pacino was going to win an Academy Award, they should have given it to him for 'Godfather I,' 'Godfather II,' 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' " all films from the early and mid-1970s.

"(Pacino) was great, but if you have to put his performance in 'Scent of a Woman' against what Denzel did as Malcolm X, it was obvious," Lee said.

He predicted that "Malcolm X" would outlast the movies that won top honors at last month's Academy Awards. "I feel that 50 years from now, people will still be looking at 'Malcolm X' whereas the five films that got nominated (for best picture) will be long, long forgotten, the same way I feel that 50 years from now, people will still be looking at 'Do The Right Thing' and will have long forgotten the best (picture) of that year, 'Driving Miss Daisy."'

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