Spike Lee began his talk at Northwestern University on Wednesday night with a promise.
“We’re gonna drop some jewels here tonight,” the two-time Academy Award nominee announced to a packed Cahn Auditorium.
And he didn’t disappoint, although plenty of those jewels came from audience members themselves.
The evening's event, hosted by Northwestern's student-run Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, Department of Political Science and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, began with a screening of Lee’s 2015 film "Chi-Raq", a retelling of the Ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, set against the backdrop of gun violence on Chicago’s South Side. In the film, the romantic partners of warring Chicago gang members stage a sex strike until their men put a stop to the violence. "Chi-Raq" stars an ensemble cast including Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Basset, John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson.
"Chi-Raq" was met with controversy upon its release in 2015, criticized for both its title and the way it depicted gun violence in Chicago. However, the film was well received by critics and currently holds an 82% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The disagreement manifested itself during the Q+A session that followed the movie, when an audience member accused Lee of turning systemic violence into a joke in the film and “placing the onus of Chicago’s gang violence” on fictional characters.
Lee defended the film by pointing to a scene where Cusack's character, based on outspoken South Side pastor Michael Pfleger, who was in attendance on Wednesday night, railed against larger causes of violence in Chicago during a eulogy for a slain child.
“I can email you the script. He went through everything that was responsible for Jennifer Hudson’s character’s [child] being murdered,” Lee said.
Following Lee’s answer, several people, including the student who asked the question, walked out of the auditorium.
Students were also concerned that the film presented an overly sexualized view of Black women and was intended for a White audience.
One audience member questioned why Lee decided to show the film at Northwestern, as opposed to a historically Black college or university.
“The movie came out Dec. 4th. It’s been on iTunes and Amazon Prime. I did not ask to be here. Northwestern asked me to come and I love Chicago, had lunch with Father Pfleger and I wanted to be here. No historic Black schools wanted me to come," he said.
Lee added that he didn't think his film belittled Black women and that actors such as Angela Basset wouldn't have agreed to appear in the film if it had.
But Lee's talk covered much more than just his latest work, as he also touched on issues ranging from the 2016 presidential election to the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes. In fact, his first comments after walking out on stage were directed torwards Northwestern's football team, whom he applauded for their unionization efforts last year.
"We all know the NCAA are pimps," he said.
In addition, everyone from Donald Trump to Chance the Rapper were fair game.
Lee spoke about a recent event he hosted for President Barack Obama, during which he noticed a Secret Service agent holding the fabled launch codes, should President Obama need to order an attack. Lee quipped that he didn't want Trump anywhere near those launch codes.
Lee also responded to critics such as Chance the Rapper (née Chancelor Bennett), the Chicago native who has been critical of his recent film. Lee noted that Bennett's father is the deputy chief of staff and director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office of public engagement.
"Chance the Rapper’s a fraud. Straight-up fraud," Lee said. "He puts himself up as a speaker of the people, but that means you have to put truths that you see. That doesn’t mean you can pick and choose what you talk about."
Despite several audience members walking out in protest throughout the night, Lee himself exited the stage to a standing ovation.