When Spelman College’s 10th president Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell asked filmmaker, writer, actor and producer Spike Lee to come back to Atlanta, he wasted no time revisiting where his illustrious career all began. The astute, brow-raising native of Brooklyn became a tenured film professor at NYU’s world-renown Tisch School of the Arts under Dr. Campbell’s two-plus decade leadership as dean, joking during his brief remarks at her inauguration ceremony that she stole him from Harvard.
“I loved working for her and under her at NYU,” acknowledges the iconic Morehouse College alumnus (C’79) wearing a navy blue New York Yankees fitted cap, blue frames and pastel-colored Air Jordan hi-top sneakers. “She really brought [NYU] to its greatest heights, one of the most dynamic people to run a school.”
During Lee’s visit to Spelman’s campus, the 59-year-old maestro hosted an exclusive screening of his latest documentary, 2 Fists Up. The hour-long piece, in partnership with ESPN Films, spotlights the wave of black youth activism in response to ongoing police brutality and racist acts pervasive on predominately white college campuses. The film director responsible for the 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks imprint spotlights #BlackLivesMatter and the onslaught of protests from various pockets of students at Mizzou such as the football team and Concerned Student 1950 via news footage and candid interviews.
“In the United States of America, race permeates everything, so why shouldn’t film be affected?” insists the monotone, deadpan-faced icon resting his chin on his left hand minutes before the screening.
Rightfully so, Lee, a third generation Morehouse man whose mother and grandmother are both Spelman alumnae, points out that 2 Fists Up concentrates specifically on how black and brown women are at the forefront of the movement. “Students have the consciousness to go out and change the world [once they leave Spelman’s beautiful campus],” he adds. “Use that negative energy into positive energy. Use those slights and stuff and turn them into creativity.”
Being on Atlanta University Center (AUC) grounds reminds Lee of how his own art and ideologies have manifested. He credits Clark Atlanta University film professor Dr. Herbert Eichelberger, affectionately referring to him as “my guy,” for encouraging him to make films. The cinematic giant forewent receiving his Lifetime Achievement Academy Award earlier this year as a response to no people of color earning nominations in lead categories.
Lee’s protest is one of the architects behind #OscarsSoWhite, trending throughout social media and the press. “Social media is affecting the whole world, so why shouldn’t film be a part of that,” reiterates a cross-legged Lee simultaneously rubbing the back of his neck, typing on his Blackberry and gripping his fists. “#BlackTwitter is huge.”
Lee mentions a recent UCLA study revealing blockbuster films with diverse casts generate more revenue at the box office than any other films. He speaks about ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey becoming the first woman of color to head a major network, suggesting that understanding inequality for blacks in Hollywood begins by understanding the film industry’s hierarchy and infrastructure.
“People are alert,” suggests the Peabody award winner. “Film is about money. It takes a lot of money to do films. We’re not in the room. We’re not a part of those gatekeepers. We’re not in those rooms when those projects are decided. It’s more feasible for these white studios to understand this. If it was the right thing to do, they would’ve been doing it from jump.”
A visionary who perseveres, Lee’s debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, premiered exactly 30 years ago. Pioneering crowdfunding, the black-and-white film shot in two weeks was made for $175,000, grossing over $7 million. Last year’s hip-hop flavored satire, Chi-Raq, became the first full-length film ever distributed via Amazon Pictures.
Lee’s canon of films (School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Bamboozled, 4 Little Girls, The Huey P. Newton Story, When the Levees Broke, Inside Man, 25th Hour and Get on the Bus among others) typically has racially-themed subject matter. However, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize recipient has explored other genres, too. Lee created the NBA2K16 video game. He has directed music videos for Michael Jackson, Prince, Fishbone, Chaka Khan, Bruce Hornsby, Miles Davis, Arrested Development, Tracy Chapman, Phyllis Hyman, Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature and Anita Baker.
Lee’s character from She’s Gotta Have It, Mars Blackmon, became synonymous with his immensely popular Nike commercials. His last documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year before airing on Showtime. Lee reveals that he’s doing another documentary on Jackson’s record-breaking Thriller LP, further suggesting that people take time to surf his IMDB profile to see the diversity of his work.
“There’s no one way to do anything,” confirms Lee. “We can do the independent route. Why should one abandon Hollywood? We can do it all. Everything is open, so we should pursue it.”
Lee says he learns a lot from teaching and lecturing on college campuses. He’s delivering a commencement address and earning an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins University next month. Coming from a family of educators, Lee advises his film students that good films start with a great script and the right people attached to it.
“Tell your story,” empowers Lee. “You can’t get discouraged. All it takes is one yes. If they say no and doors get slammed in your face, don’t take that to heart. Keep stepping. That’s what Michael Jordan does.”
In addition to promoting perseverance, making periodic trips back to the AUC makes Lee feel proud. Instructing at NYU since 1993 and becoming artistic director in 2002, Lee is appreciative to have supporters like Dr. Campbell who fully understand what he originally set out to accomplish through cinema.
“The filmmaker that did Do the Right Thing is not the same filmmaker that did She’s Gotta Have It,” insists Lee with his right leg resting on the arm of a chair. “It’s just the way it is. It’s always good to be here. This is a great moment in a very special place. [Spelman] is in good hands.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.