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Spike Lee's New Documentary on the Mizzou Protests Features a TC Professor and Her Students


When it comes to weighing in on issues of race and racism in education, few in the academy have been more active or visible than TC’s Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz. Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education, studies and writes about culturally relevant pedagogy, racial literacy in urban teacher education, the mentoring of male black and Latino students, and the literacy practices of black girls. She’s led TC’s Racial Literacy Roundtable series; is co-leading a Civic Participation Project, funded by TC’s Provost’s Office; served on a blue-ribbon panel that persuaded the New York State Board of Regents to recommend $50 million in spending to address opportunity gaps for young male students of color; and in November was prominently quoted in a Huffington Post story on campus protests over racism.

Still, when Sealey-Ruiz received a voice message a few months back from legendary film auteur Spike Lee, she didn’t take it too seriously.

“He’d just endorsed Bernie Sanders, so I thought it might be a robo-call,” she says.

But then Lee, a 2010 Teachers College medalist whose documentary, “When the Levees Broke,” about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, was the focus of a TC social studies curriculum, left another message.


“It said, ‘Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, this is Spike Lee from Brooklyn, I’m the Real McCoy, this is not a prank. I really want to talk to you, please give me a call,’” Sealey-Ruiz says. “I called back, and it was really Spike Lee.  He said he’d read my work and he wanted to interview me for a project on the Black Lives Matter movement and campus protests.”

Within 24 hours, Sealey-Ruiz had booked herself and three students – postdoctoral fellow Jamila Lyiscott, Patrick Gladston Williamson (M.A. ’16) and Gifty Agyapong (M.A. ’16) – for interviews at Lee’s 40 Acres studio in Brooklyn.

The results can be seen in “2 Fists Up,” Lee’s 58-minute documentary on student protests at the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”), where racist incidents led one student to conduct a hunger strike, prompted the football team and its coach to join the movement, and ultimately led to the resignation of the university’s president.

In the film, both Williamson and Lyiscott cite the role of social media in giving power to protests like the one at Mizzou.

“Black culture has always dictated popular culture, but there’s been a lot of cultural appropriation,” Williamson says. “With social media, it kind of switches the role. We’ve always had something to say, but now we’re switching the role from consumer to producer.”


“Now, whenever the issue comes up of racism, there are a range of people throughout Twitter who will inundate the space with critical, powerful and sometimes just hilarious conversation around the issue,” Lysicott says.

For her part, Sealey-Ruiz, who was interviewed for an hour by Lee, provides some historical context for the Mizzou protest, describing a 1967 game boycott by players on the San Jose State University football team. That kind of history, and black history in general “isn’t being taught in schools, so for me, the Black Lives Matter movement is stuff that I know and stuff that I’ve read, but it’s new for my daughter’s generation,” says Sealey-Ruiz, adding that “slavery, Jim Crow and segregation did damage to the hearts and minds of all children” and that understanding the past is critical to whatever repair is possible.   

“I keep telling my own students that, as teachers, they have to know about the people they’re teaching. And in the South, where racism has been generational for blacks, you have to understand that when black students are subjected to certain kinds of anti-blackness, and they’re seeing police brutality nationwide, it’s going to be natural for them to say, ‘Am I next?’”

Sealey-Ruiz said she was honored to be included in a film by Lee.

“For me, it was coming face to face with a cinema hero,” she said. “Movies like ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and ‘Jungle Fever’ were date movies for my husband and me. And his film ‘X’ is one of my favorite films. I think about and am inspired by Malcolm X’s honesty and fearlessness, whenever I talk about race.” Describing what it felt like to be interviewed by a director she greatly admires, Sealey-Ruiz said “Spike really put me at ease. We talked about our kids and NYU, where we both went, and being from New York. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.”

Sealey-Ruiz is now doing some research for Lee for other projects he has in the works. The director also invited Sealey-Ruiz and her 11-year-old daughter back for a tour of 40 Acres and sent them home with copies of a few of his recent films.

“I was really glad, because most kids my daughter’s age don’t know the brilliance of Spike Lee,” she says. “So this experience, for me, was also about passing on this knowledge to someone of a newer generation.” – Joe Levine

Spike Lee’s “2 Fists Up” is airing on ESPN for the month of June, and can be viewed on line at ESPN.go.com. The documentary premiered for three days at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in April and has since been shown at college campuses around the country (including Yale and Mizzou). Part of The Undefeated, ESPN's new platform focusing on the intersection of race and sports, “2 Fists Up” premiered the new season of the TV miniseries Spike Lee's Lil Joints.

Published Friday, Jun 10, 2016

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education (Photo Credit: Howard T. Reginald Miller II)
Jamila Lyiscott
Jamila Lyiscott, TC Postdoctoral Fellow
Spike Lee
Spike Lee