SALT LAKE CITY — Filmmaker Spike Lee stared out at the audience in the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall and cited a statistic that by 2035, whites will be a minority in the United States.
"Maybe not in the state of Utah," he said, drawing a wave of laughter and applause. "It's going to take longer than that."
Lee, 53, gave the annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values on Tuesday and called for an open, honest discussion of race, a discussion that he said is becoming more unavoidable.
"Race is the great big elephant in the room. Black and white are afraid to talk about it," he said. "This country will never be as great as it can be until we talk about that."
Lee talked about how his "joints" have investigated race relations in the country, starting with his breakout 1989 film, "Do the Right Thing," which looked at the hottest day of the summer on one block of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in his native Brooklyn.
His work didn't always get a positive reaction. He said some critics warned whites not to go see that film with blacks or risk getting caught in a riot.
More recently, Lee has done two four-hour documentaries on post-Katrina New Orleans, "When the Levees Broke" and "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise."
The director bemoaned the attitude of young blacks who he said feel pressured to act "ghetto" — which he labeled ignorance — for fear of being seen as too white, and who don't dream of being anything but pro athletes or rappers.
"We have a generation of young people growing up who don't see any other options," he said.
Lee also said some of the enthusiasm he felt after Barack Obama was elected president has worn off. He was "perplexed" by Obama having a beer with the police officer who arrested Lee's friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was trying to enter his own home.
"I still have not understood that one," Lee said, adding that it reminded him of a film studio suggesting he end "Do the Right Thing" by having the two main antagonists, Italian-American Sal and African-American Mookie, share a hug.
He regaled the crowd with inside stories from the making of some of his most provocative films. For "Malcolm X" in 1992, Lee said, Denzel Washington prepared for a year by reading the Quran and abstaining from pork and alcohol.
Lee faced a wrenching decision when making his first documentary in 1997, "4 Little Girls," about a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.: whether to include morgue photos of the girls who were killed.
"My conscience told me I should put them in," he said.
Lee warned about the power of images to shape thinking, arguing that American popular culture has created misrepresentations of issues like race. The goal of his filmmaking is to make art a vessel for dialogue and ultimately for truth.
"We dominate the world because of culture," he said. "A nuclear bomb never influenced how someone talks or dresses or dances."
e-mail: Paul Koepp@desnews.com