How legendary filmmaker Spike Lee is investing in new opportunities for the next generation

BY Ben Ebuka Oji January 30, 2024 3:06 PM EDT
Legendary Filmmaker Shelton Jackson, widely known as Spike Lee.
Legendary Filmmaker Shelton Jackson, widely known as Spike Lee. Photo Credit: The Knicks Wall.

American film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor Shelton Jackson, known as Spike Lee, is one of the most prominent figures in American filmmaking and has remained active in Hollywood since the 1980s. A remarkable feature of his works is his ability to seamlessly craft informative, engaging, and monumental stories that have continually explored race relations, issues within the black community, the impact of media in modern life, urban crime and poverty, and other political matters. Spike has won numerous accolades for his work inspiring and thought-provoking pieces.

According to Lee, success is often preceded by a significant effort, even if it may not be immediately apparent. His message emphasizes that simply waiting for the right opportunity or spotlight without taking action to prepare for it or expedite its arrival will likely result in not achieving the desired goals.

Spike’s journey serves as a testament to this notion, as he encountered challenges and setbacks along the way to where he is today. Despite being rejected from film schools at the University of Southern California and the American Film Institute, Spike gained admission at New York University based on the quality of his work rather than his performance on standardized tests such as the GRE. Today, Spike stands tall as a prominent figure in Hollywood, showcasing his immense talent and influence.

Through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, founded in 1979, Spike has produced over 50 documentaries and films that have featured breakthrough performances from renowned actors and are acclaimed for being culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.

Notably, his debut feature-length film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” released in 1986, holds a special place in cinematic history. This American black-and-white comedy-drama film, written, produced, edited, and directed by Spike, has been recognized for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. In 2019, “She’s Gotta Have It” was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Spike is acknowledged for his role in expanding the American film industry to an unparalleled extent for other Black talent. In addition to his remarkable career spanning over four decades in Hollywood, where he has produced a body of work that delves into the African American experience, challenges racial stereotypes, and tackles controversial subjects, Spike is also celebrated for his impactful endeavors that reverberate across the nation and contribute to the evolution of American society.

Empowering the Next Generation

With over 25 years of experience in the film industry, Spike has begun a mission to empower and support aspiring filmmakers. Despite his mean demeanor on set, the director has shown a soft spot for young individuals and their dreams.

In his relentless pursuit to uplift the African American community and the future generation of America, Spike has delved into the realm of education, where he has consistently developed a series of educational initiatives to create access, exposure, and career opportunities for the future generation.

Spike is warmly welcomed as a guest lecturer, engaging in candid discussions about the art of filmmaking at various universities across the United States. Surprisingly approachable, he regularly lectures at esteemed institutions like Morehouse, NYU, Clark Atlanta, Hamilton College, Chicago State University, Rutgers, Savannah State, DePauw, Shippensburg, and the College of William and Mary.

He commenced his teaching career in education in 1991 at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on filmmaking. Two years later, he began teaching at the Graduate Film Program of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2002, he was bestowed the position of artistic director at NYU and presently holds the esteemed position of a tenured professor.

His deep-rooted passion for education as a vehicle for liberation and empowerment stems from his familial heritage. Education is an integral part of his genetic makeup. His mother, Jacquelyn, taught Black literature at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, while his father, Bill, a jazz musician and composer, mentored aspiring maestros on the artistry of rhythm. Furthermore, his grandmother, Zimmie Reatha Shelton, dedicated five decades to teaching art in Atlanta, and his great-grandfather, Dr. William James Edwards, received his education under the tutelage of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Dr. Edwards later established his own educational institution, the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, in Alabama, which unfortunately closed its doors in 1973 due to the integration of the school system.

“I just love teaching. I wouldn’t [have been] here for 30 years if I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know this right away, but I’ve come to learn that teaching is a two-way thing: If you’re a teacher and you’re not learning anything from your students, then you’re missing out,” he says.

In addition to his academic endeavors, Spike frequently involves students in real-life production. During the filming of his studio movie “Old Boy” in 2012, which took place at Dillard University in New Orleans, Spike, true to his style, ensured that aspiring filmmakers had the opportunity to be part of the process. He engaged students in every aspect of the film production, including the crucial task of location scouting.

Spike’s dedication to the younger generation extends beyond his classroom work as a professor or guest lecturer. In addition to providing his expertise, he also offers financial support for promising thesis projects, enabling students to transform their visions into reality on the big screen. Furthermore, he organized a significant fundraising event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his production company. The substantial amount raised was then divided between Morehouse and NYU, with the creation of an escrow account specifically designed to support future production awards for students.

“What he has given back is not just in finances, but his time, which is invaluable,” says Patti Pearson, Assistant Dean of Global Strategic Initiatives at NYU. “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.”

Spike comprehends the recurring financial obstacles that students face, and throughout the years, he has raised more than $1 million through his philanthropic organization, the Spike Lee Production Fund, to support students in their thesis film endeavors.

“The biggest [challenge for students] is the money. How do you pay tuition? The school gives you equipment, a couple of rolls of film, and a stipend, but you got to raise the money yourself. That was an issue when I was here, and it’s still an issue. Students owe roughly a quarter-million dollars in student loans when they leave here. That’s always been a problem. To alleviate a little of that over the years, I’ve raised over $1 million with the Spike Lee Production Fund to help students with their thesis films,” he says.

A few years back, Spike introduced the “Malcolm X Scholarship for Exceptional Courage,” an initiative aimed at undergraduate students studying at various UNCF Institutions. This scholarship was created with the intention of highlighting the remarkable life and contributions of Malcolm X. Under this program, selected students who exhibited resilience and determination in overcoming obstacles or hardships while pursuing their higher education received a sum of $4,000 each.

In May 2023, Spike unveiled his inaugural Spike Fellows Program, a collaboration with The Gersh Agency, a talent and literary agency located in Beverly Hills. This program aims to foster the growth of creative talent from three HBCUs situated in Atlanta. The first fellowship will assist undergraduate Black students in the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a non-profit corporation comprising three historically Black colleges and universities: Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College.

“It is with great honor, privilege, and excitement to announce the Spike Fellows in association with my partners The Gersh Agency and the AUCC,” Lee said in a statement. “From the jump, from the get-go, I knew when (not if) I opened a crack in the door, I was bringing as many Black and Brown folks with me in front and behind the camera.”

Lee added, “I know firsthand the education one receives at a Historically Black College and University. I am who I am because of my grandmother (Zimmie Jackson) and my mother (Jacquelyn Shelton Lee) who both graduated from Spelman College. I am who I am because of my grandfather (Richard Jackson Shelton) and my father (William Lee) who both graduated from Morehouse. It’s on the campuses of Spelman and Morehouse where they met, fell in love, and got married. As my elders often told me, ‘Deeds, not words.’”

In January 2024, the renowned filmmaker initiated an internship program in conjunction with the School of Global Journalism and Communication (SGJC) at Morgan State University as an extension of his Spike Fellows Program. This collaborative effort aims to provide opportunities for Morgan students who aspire to pursue a career in the film industry. The internship, scheduled to start in June 2024 and spanning eight weeks, will offer a comprehensive multimedia experience. During this period, the intern will closely collaborate with producers, immersing themselves in the intricacies of film production, engaging in script development and editing, and gaining practical insights into the process of creating feature films and television programs.

In addition to his commitment to education, Spike consistently advocates for increased support for teachers and public educators. Ultimately, Spike firmly believes that success comes through a combination of talent and hard work.

“When my students say, “Professor Lee, this is hard,” I say, “What’s easy?” That’s my answer. I’ve always felt that talent is a God-given gift, but if you don’t have that drive, that grit, talent might not be enough.”