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Spike Lee Gives BU Students the Only Commencement Speech They'll Ever Need

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I'm not sure who spoke at my Boston University graduation five years ago. Though I can't remember why I skipped the ceremony, my guess is that it either had to do with my fear of robes or a longstanding suspicion that commencement speeches are just opportunities for pols and benefactors to mount bullshit pulpits.

It's all good, though, as film director Spike Lee last night delivered nearly three hours of harsh enlightenment for several hundred students and guests at BU's Metcalf Hall. It's the only graduation speech I ever needed – a tremendous affirmation of life lessons I've begun to learn in my non-stop Ramen-grubbing multi-media hustle.

“Hopefully when you chose your major it was for something you love doing,” said Spike. “A lot of motherfuckers who have a whole lot of money have killed themselves...A lot of people are just existing; with the exception of their kids, they have no joy...I didn't become a filmmaker because I wanted to become rich or famous. I did it because I love making films.”

As Lisa Simmons from The Color of Film Collaborative (the event was co-sponsored by the Roxbury International Film Festival) noted, Spike walks the walk. He's dropped at least one new, thought-provoking movie nearly every year for two decades, and has left his 40 Acres and a Mule stamp on dozens of additional projects. Most importantly, he's done so with an incomparable independent gusto.

Of course, Spike's interests span far beyond his own craft. Now the father of a teenage girl, he has some new ideological adversaries to add onto his pile of political enemies and pro sports rivals. “Reality shows are going to ruin civilization,” he said. “They have young peoples' minds fucked up...That shit is staged like a motherfucker.”

Spike knows more than most about the modern artist struggle, and that the promise of instant fame is nonsensical if not culturally damaging. It took him nearly a decade to graduate from film student to filmmaker, getting his break in 1986 when “She's Gotta Have It” grossed $8.5 million on a $175,000 budget. Looking back, he can't bare to watch his debut feature, but the process through which he made it happen remains an integral memory.

Over and over, Spike stressed that there's no roadmap for success – particularly for those of us who eschew cubicle-bound aspirations. In his case, small and large victories came from a combination of education (at Morehouse and later NYU film school), determination, and constant encouragement (and financing) from dedicated family members, who pushed Spike to work “ten times harder” than his white classmates.

With that said, Spike did luck into having grown up in an era ripe with camera-worthy hysteria. He got his first Super 8 in 1977, and spent the ensuing summer taping everything from the genesis of hip-hop to the frenzy cast throughout New York as a result of David Berkowitz and his demanding canine neighbor. Extraordinary circumstances plus extraordinary personalities equal extra-extraordinary potential, and he met the challenge.

There were also smaller revelations packed in Spike's vignettes: he considers some contemporary hip-hop thuggery to be genocidal; the title for “Do the Right Thing” came before the script; and he can't stand when cats leave the stickers on their New Era fitted hats. While that last one is ironic coming from a guy who helped popularize spandex undershorts, his words, on everything from blaxploitation to gentrification, were on the whole didactic if not essential inspirational listening.

Following a Q&A session and some autograph signing, Spike joined a small group of BU folks and community leaders for a nearby dinner reception, where he stepped directly to me in my Mets hat (from which I'd removed the sticker minutes earlier in expecting this exact moment to transpire). Only then, I'm afraid, did Spike offer wisdom that I hope turns out to be untrue. Standing there in a Yankees hoodie with a matching cap, he suggested that I scrap all championship hopes for the near future. So just imagine his response when I told him that I'm trying to become a Sox fan.

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