Speaking before an audience of more than 1,200 at a Black History Month event in Detroit on Friday, Feb. 19, filmmaker Spike Lee had plenty to say about the Motor City, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.
Lee served as the keynote speaker for the Cadillac-sponsored event, which marked the 10th Annual General Motors African Ancestry Network (GMAAN) Black History Month Celebration. “I’m glad to be here. It’s Black History Month — got an extra day this year,” the Chi-Raq director quipped upon taking the podium at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.
Known for a career of making controversial statements, Lee immediately went political, asking the audience if Governor Rick Snyder should be jailed for his role in the recent Flint water crisis. (GM and the United Auto Workers Union have donated $3 million to help Flint residents.) Things got interesting when Lee then shifted his focus to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
“Isn’t your former mayor already locked up? The’ hip-hop mayor?’ How many years he got left?’” he joked. “Is that too sensitive a subject? Yeah, well all you people voted for him. He became mayor, no one in this room voted for him? Raise your hand. Don’t front.”
Lee then spoke broadly about the challenges facing African-Americans today, in contrast to his upbringing in Brooklyn, New York. “On my block, if you messed up and did something wrong, any parent on that block had permission to tear your ass up. It was understood,” he said. “But that changed because of crack. Crack wiped out generations of us. We had children raising children.”
Lee also spoke about the “topsy-turvy” social values in the black community. “Being on my block, we never, ever made fun of anybody that was smart, that was intelligent, that spoke proper English. We never said, ‘You trying to be white. You a sell-out,’” he said. “Right now we’re in an era where very intelligent young black kids fail class on purpose because of peer pressure, because if you do speak correct English, or get A’s and stuff like that, you ridiculed.”
Lee gave thanks to his grandmother, who was college-educated and paid for him to attend New York University. “Our ancestors risked their lives to teach other how to read and write. So think about it,” he said. “Our ancestors risked their lives for education, and now half the young [black] men in America don’t even finish high school.”
During a question and answer session, an audience member asked Lee to weigh in on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m a firm supporter of Black Lives Matter, I gave love to them in my film, Chi-Raq,” he said. “But I have a little slightly different view. Black Lives do matter. … [But] we have to be just as outraged when we’re killing ourselves. It shouldn’t matter what color the trigger finger is.”
Lee’s latest theatrical release, Chi-Raq, is a modern day update of the Greek comedy Lysistrata, set amid the gang violence of the south side of Chicago, in which the women refuse to sleep with men until they stop fighting. It has earned mixed reviews.
GMAAN is General Motors’ employee-run resource group, which aims to attract and develop employees of African ancestry. As in previous years, Friday’s event was sold-out. The evening also featured a performance by the musician Kem.
Since 2012, GMAAN has operated more than 160 mentoring teams, pairing a GM professional with five to seven protégés within the company. Each year GMAAN hosts community outreach “Ride & Drive” events at churches, schools, and other local events to raise awareness about GM products. In recent years, the group has raised more than $1.9 million for scholarships for the United Negro College Fund. The group has also raised more than $38,000 for the American Cancer Society.