Working With or Against the System

For Howard University’s 2016 commencement, President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address. When I listened to his speech, what resonated with me the most was the following section:

“Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.  This is hard to explain sometimes.  You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.  If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.  And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that’s never been the source of our progress.  That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.” -Barack Obama

President Obama Delivers Commencement Address At Howard University
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 07: A member of the class of 2016 reacts as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 2016 commencement ceremony at Howard University May 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. President Obama is the sixth sitting U.S. president to deliver the commencement speech at Howard University. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Full Transcript of Obama’s 2016 HU Commencement Speech

I couldn’t help but think about this in relation to Spike Lee. He is independently funded and subverts Hollywood’s reputation of whiteness. His work is not made for white mainstream consumption, so he has to find alternatives for funding, which has been largely successful whether it is with kickstarter or his commercials.

In creating his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, he has increased the number of black representation in cinema and has been a key contributor in the progress that Obama notes in his speech when he states, “We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives.  No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States.”.

But in subverting the system and creating an alternative path to success, Lee is not compromising himself or his work. He maintains the “moral purity” that Obama references while getting what he wants. So for Lee it wasn’t about working with or against the system, but rather working with what he has in order to actualize his goals.


I’m hesitant to call what Lee is doing as against the system. The phrase itself makes me feel as though its a threat or an active attack on the status quo, which I think makes Lee unfairly appear aggressive. An increased amount of black representation in cinema should not be perceived as a threat–it should be seen as progress and a more accurate depiction of society.

Do you think that Lee falls in this binary?


2 thoughts on “Working With or Against the System”

  1. I feel as though Spike Lee is already beyond the system. His intended audience and the messages that he sends resonates with people enough that he becomes “unconventional” rather than aggressive. And the hard reality is, no one can disagree with him because we all sub-consiously know his ideas are true, and outsiders are deathly afraid of invalidating racial experiences that are not their own. What also adds to Lee’s success is the medium in which he is able to be unconventional. In thinking about Obama’s speech, politics isn’t an area that allows politicians to going against the system, and yet it is also an area that people consistently go in attempting to defy, but somehow fall into the trap of being absorbed by. Cinema and production is a different forum for expression that people often criticize and appreciate, but do not question. His medium allows him to escape the confines of the binary and create his own category. I don’t mean to be reductive in addressing Obama’s speech or categorizing different occupations, these are just ideas that may contribute to answering your question.


  2. I agree that Spike Lee does not necessarily operate against the system, especially since his cast is so diverse. But I think the way Hollywood functions, and the racial disproportion in representation, makes it so that he appears as an opposition figure to the system. It’s not to say that he is actively railing against the system, but even just the casting of his works seem to offer a full critique of the system, whether that’s unfair or not. I do think you’re right in that it unfairly portrays Lee as aggressive because people often categorize him as divisive or segregationist in some way. But that seems to happen whenever you choose to forge your own path


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