Spike Lee is the first person to admit that he's no official scholar on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Still, the famed actor and director of films like "Malcolm X" and "He Got Game" did not mince words on King's legacy Tuesday night at North Central College in Naperville.
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"I think he's been trivialized," Lee told the nearly sold-out crowd inside Wentz Concert Hall. "I think most Americans have a very superficial idea of who he is. They know they get a day off, they know one line out of his speech. You need to get your MLK on. You can't just go by 'I have a dream' and call it day."
Lee spent nearly two hours lecturing and answering audience questions, proving he knows plenty about even King's lesser-known speeches and history, and sharing ideas on how King's values should be implemented today.
"Education was supposed to be the vehicle that would get us to the promised land," he said. "(But) why do black youth ridicule each other? If you speak correctly and get straight A's, you're a white girl, a white boy, a sellout, an Oreo. But if you stand on the corner with your pants sagging, speaking in slang … acting ghetto … you're black. This dumbing down, we have to fight that."
Lee also launched his lecture by firing back at the National Italian-American Council and the Italic Institute of America. Both groups spoke out this month against Lee being invited to speak at North Central, arguing his films like "Do the Right Thing" and "Summer of Sam" perpetuate stereotypes of Italian Americans and conflict with King's legacy of fighting racism.
Lee countered that King preached freedom, including freedom of expression.
"Why are, sometimes, African-American artists not allowed to express themselves the same way white artists are?" Lee said.
To illustrate his point, Lee quoted nearly 10 movies with scenes that could be seen as racist that were directed by Italian-Americans, including "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas."
"I don't want to read that Spike Lee said these directors are racists. They are humanists," he said. "All these are great directors, all these are great films. But why the disconnect (in who is called racist)? Those guys, they need to protest 'Jersey Shore,' that's what they need to do."
North Central graduate student Dan Laumbacher said the director's talk pushed buttons, just like his movies, and was also a mix of researched topics and impromptu thought.
"He did a good job bringing current events that were happening here, like the Italian-American group protests, into his speech," said Laumbacher. "And while he was often speaking off the cuff, his arguments were well-prepared."
Lee's speech was part of a weeklong celebration of King's life at North Central College that concludes Saturday with the school's 23rd annual gospel extravaganza.