With more than a quarter of a century of filmmaking under his belt, Spike Lee has begun working with students to provide opportunities for them to reach their dreams. The tough-minded director on set has proven to have a soft spot when it comes to youth and the next generation of filmmakers.
Lee is a welcomed guest lecturer offering candid discussions about the art of filmmaking on campuses throughout the U.S. He is surprisingly accessible to students and makes it part of his routine to lecture at universities such as his alma maters, Morehouse and NYU, as well as Clark Atlanta, Hamilton College, Chicago State University, Rutgers, Savannah State, DePauw, Shippensburg and the College of William and Mary.
The 20th anniversary of one of his most celebrated films, Do the Right Thing, took him on a whirlwind visit to campuses. The movie has helped to launch the careers of actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, John Tutturo, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence and Giancarlo Esposito. Other Lee films, Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues, helped to propel Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Halle Berry into bigger roles.
Teacher in and out of the classroom
A lot has changed since Spike Lee enrolled at NYU as a graduate student seeking to sharpen his craft. Never far from controversy or success, his student short film, The Answer, was a response to the racially charged 1915 Birth of a Nation film that many deemed racist and was once used as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. However, his thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Director’s/New Film Festival.
Lee was named artistic director of NYU’s graduate film program in 2002. Lecturing primarily in the fall semesters, he can often be spotted walking around campus or meeting with students. His thesis-level graduate film class meets once a week, and while the class only has between 36 and 40 students, there are 1,000 applicants each year.
“Just to have him here and working at the school has been phenomenal,” says Patti Pearson, associate director of special projects at NYU.
“He works with students on thesis films and some post-graduate work. He also advises on faculty hires, and the dean and chairs sometimes consult with him,” Pearson says. “There is still some excitement among undergraduates. Students want to take his class. We get a lot of requests from outside the department.”
Lee’s support for young filmmakers doesn’t stop with making himself available as a professor or guest lecturer. Pearson says each year, Lee offers funding for five promising thesis projects to help students bring their visions to life in film. He also put together a major fundraiser to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his production company and divided the millions raised between Morehouse and NYU, creating an escrow account to support future production fund awards for students.
“What he has given back is not just in finances, but his time, which is invaluable,” Pearson says. “What a lot of people don’t know is that he’s taken a lot of students as interns on his films. He brings in a lot of professional guests to talk during class, and he’s very available to the students. I don’t know anyone of his status who is teaching.
“He’s a premium American filmmaker who helps and gives back in any way he can.”
Bringing students into production
It’s not every day that an HBCU turns into a Hollywood closed set. This fall, Lee has taken a break from teaching at NYU to shoot his soon-to-be released studio film, Old Boy — a “reinvisioned” and more diverse version of a 2003 South Korean box-office hit, which is now being filmed on the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans.
The movie is directed by Lee and stars Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson.
In true Lee fashion, he has sought out opportunities to ensure that future filmmakers don’t miss the experience.
Lee has involved students in the production of the film, including location scouting, and intern opportunities in every aspect of the movie. Students are also involved in helping to keep the set closed, with photos and tweets forbidden.
Ejaaz A. Mason, a junior mass communication major with a concentration in film, is among 25 Dillard film students gaining unprecedented access by interning on the production of Old Boy.
“I’m interning in the art department,” Mason says. “We are in charge of everything that goes into the look of the film, set decorations and anything other than acting and wardrobe. I’m working in the production office and on set and learning the ins and outs of how the set is supposed to look.”
Mason has made a few short films of his own and is putting together his reel, something that he kicked himself for not having prepared when Lee asked to see it. He first met Lee when he came to scout the campus along with his adviser, mentor and film professor Keith Morris.
“Spike is easy to talk to,” says Mason, who starts his day on the film at 6 a.m. and returns in the evenings after class. “I get to work side by side with him. Working on Old Boy is really giving me a perspective on Hollywood life.”
“This opportunity has shown me that Spike Lee is a person like you and me,” Mason says. “The only thing that separates people like him is ingenuity and ambition. Spike Lee is one of my favorites because he is so determined to make a good movie. I’m excited about getting up at the crack of dawn and doing my best.”
Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta and later moved to Brooklyn with his family, who emphasized both education and the arts. His father was a jazz musician, and his mother and grandmother were teachers.
“My mother was always dragging me to Broadway plays and father took me to the Newport Jazz Festivals,” Lee says in an interview with “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” In the interview, Lee says his mother, the consummate educator, returned his letters home marked up in red ink. “The grammar was terrible.”
Lee attended Morehouse College, but took his film classes at Clark Atlanta University, where he fell in love with film after completing his first student film.
Dr. Herbert Eichelberger is the man credited with awakening Lee’s gift and sharpening his filmmaking skills. Eichelberger continues to be a mentor and confidant.
“He was an excellent student,” Eichelberger says. “People don’t know this because he’s so laid back, but he was a very studious and dedicated student. Spike was a hard worker from the outset. He was always looking for the truth in stories.”
When the two first met, Eichelberger says Lee was in the middle of deciding what to do with himself after taking all of the required courses; he would have to make some career decisions. “Spike went home and there was a big blackout during the late ’70s,” Eichelberger says. “He made a film about it. I gave him some encouragement about editing. That gave him the foundation for what he wanted to do.
“He really has his own touch. He lets you draw your own conclusions, leaving you to be the final arbiter to solve the problem.”
Eichelberger recalls a determined Lee and his friend Monty Ross making plans for future films.
“They were talking about doing these things when they were in my classes,” he says. “They were really concerned about the fact that there wasn’t a positive Black presence on the screen. They wanted to tell a clearer, more accurate story.” Movie posters and photos of his top student’s work proudly adorn Eichelberger’s office door and walls. Lee recently gave an hour-long lecture at Clark Atlanta about the making of Red Hook Summer.
“He’s stayed in touch,” says Eichelberger, who noted receiving a text from him last week. “I’ve collected all of the handwritten letters from him.
“He comes back to speak to students even when he isn’t promoting a film. He’s always asking, ‘Which ones are your sharp ones?’ Then he seeks to give them opportunities.”