Director Spike Lee was only in Seattle for five hours or so last Friday, but his visit will be felt for a long, long time.
Lee’s appearance at the annual fundraising luncheon for Solid Ground — a food and housing charity — drew a record crowd of 1,200, and raised $317,056. That’s $100,000 more than the event has ever brought in.
Solid Ground Communications Manager Mike Buchman said that Lee was a natural keynote. The director of films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” speaks passionately about race relations, crime and poverty.
“He’s a bit of a cultural lightning rod, which is cool,” Buchman said. “And we’ve never had a person who is a pop-culture star. And it’s just great to have him.”
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But a little nerve-wracking to find that I had been seated right next to him. While he texted. (Nothing really interesting, I’m sorry to say — and sorry that I saw.)
I thanked Lee for “Inside Man” (“I’m trying to get Denzel (Washington) to do a sequel,” he told me. “That’s not new news.”), then asked him about his beloved New York Knicks, and whether he thought Seattle would ever get another basketball team of its own.
But the director wasn’t biting on anything but his lunch. He glanced at my notebook and gave me a nice smile: “Let me eat first,” he said, then adjusted his Dolce & Gabbana cap and dug into his salmon and salad.
I got it. Lee was saving his words for his speech.
He started by recalling the events of April 4, 1968 — exactly 46 years before — when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“I was sitting on a stoop when I heard a faint voice, and then someone screaming, ‘They killed him! They killed him!’ It was my mother. We all tried to comfort her, but it wasn’t working.”
Our remembrance of King, Lee said, has been “trivialized.”
“We get a day off, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and that’s it,” he said.
People in the crowd called out their agreement.
Lee then recalled a summer when he didn’t have a job to pay for school, so he visited a friend named Vietta Johnson, who had a Super 8 camera and film cartridges sitting in the corner of her living room.
“You can have it,” she told him. He used the camera to film the rioting that followed the New York City blackout of 1977. He made his first film out of the raw footage, with the encouragement of a professor named Herb Eichelberger,
who is still teaching at Clark Atlanta University.
“That was a key moment when he took an interest in me,” Lee said. “And it was not a mistake that the spirit told me to go visit Vietta that day.”
Education is key, Lee said. There are more minority men in prison than attending college, and in some communities, good grades are a sign of weakness.
“It’s not cool to be educated today,” he said.
Lee’s grandmother, however, believed in his dreams and paid for his film-school education with her Social Security checks.
“I say my prayers on bended knee because I am doing what I love,” he said. “I get out of bed like I have been shot out of a cannon.”
Lee closed with the same smile he gave me, and a couple of zingers:
“If I get a chance to talk to (Seahawks head coach) Pete Carroll, I’m gonna tell him to change it to the ‘12th Person,’ ” which drew cheers.
And there was this: “If I had a dollar for every day someone told me, ‘Do the right thing,’ me and Bill Gates would be hangin’ out.”
Instead, he was hanging out with emcee Joyce Taylor of KING 5; City Councilmember Sally Clark; King County Councilmember Larry Gossett; and Constance Rice, the managing director of Casey Family Programs and wife of former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. And nosy me.
At a nearby table sat Michael “Wanz” Wansley, the voice of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” hook, for which he was part of “The Heist” Grammy haul.
“I just sent in a form to have mine shipped to me,” Wansley said, adding that he didn’t know where he was planning to put the award.
“Somewhere in my apartment,” he said.
For now, though, the memories of that night will hold him over.
“Imagine sitting in the third row behind Ben and Ryan,” he said, referring to Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) and Ryan Lewis.
“I saw Keith Urban, Gary Clark Jr.
And Ed Sheeran introduced me to Taylor Swift.”
“She had red lipstick and a metal dress on.”
Of course she did.
Lee stayed for a meet and greet, posing for pictures with a long line of people, including Ann Holstrom of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the director was eager to have a meeting with folks there).
One Native-American man presented Lee with an eagle feather. In return, Lee signed his sneakers with a Sharpie, writing: “Original American.”
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Sunday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.