‘MOREHOUSE IS WHERE I BECAME A MAN’

Spike Lee reflects on influence of alma mater during inaugural film festival at Atlanta college.

Spike Lee
PHOTOS BY SEAN MCNEIL/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS
Spike Lee takes a photo of a portrait of him holding his Oscar during the inaugural Human Rights Film Festival at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Oct. 12.

BY ERNIE SUGGS
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS

Spike Lee did not so much arrive on the Morehouse College campus earlier this month as he glided in quickly like Mercury, not wearing wings on his feet, but a pair of golden Nikes. 

The Academy Award-winning director skipped the red carpet of Morehouse’s Human Rights Film Festival award ceremony, where he was getting the first-ever Spike Lee Award for Social Impact in Filmmaking, and headed straight to the green room. The 1979 Morehouse graduate didn’t want to keep a group of student journalists waiting. 

Lee sat at the head of a table in front of the Maroon Tiger staff with actor Nate Parker, who wandered in wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers 42 T-shirt with “Mookie” on the back in homage to Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” 

“How does it feel to be back at Morehouse?” the editor of the student paper asked.

Wearing a white Nike Morehouse College hat, a maroon Morehouse hoodie, and black Morehouse sweatpants, Lee looked puzzled by the question. 

Spike Lee
During Morehouse’s inaugural Human Rights Film Festival on Oct. 12, Spike Lee poses with director and Morehouse graduate Stefon Bristol (from left), President David A. Thomas, director, producer and Morehouse graduate Seith Mann and actor Nate Parker.

‘Never left’ 

For better or worse, four decades after he graduated from Morehouse, Lee continues to wear his alma mater on his sleeve. He sat on the school’s board for a while and donated money and resources to start Morehouse’s journalism program.

In his phone, a Blackberry, are the phone numbers of dozens of guys he went to school with that he calls regularly if not to check up on, or to remind them of how great the Yankees are.

His second movie, “School Daze,” was his four years of Morehouse “wrapped up in a homecoming weekend.” 

“Back?” Lee asked the student. “I never left Morehouse.” 

Spike Lee leads Morehouse men in a school cheer at the Human Rights Film Festival.

1979 graduate 

Lee is still amazed that it has been exactly 40 years since he graduated from Morehouse and had to be reminded of that fact when his class gathered for the reunion recently. 

“I feel very young,” said Lee, whose energy belies his 62 years. “And you know why that is? Because I am doing what I love. When you do what you love, you live longer. And that is not tied to money. A lot of people have a lot of money and an unhappy life.” 

When Lee left Morehouse in the spring of 1979, he almost immediately became one of the most influential and original filmmakers in the world, changing the way Black stories are told on film, while inspiring a generation of artists. 

“I call him Abraham because he is the father of many nations,” said Seith Mann, a 1995 Morehouse graduate and former NYU graduate assistant to Lee, before becoming an executive producer on such shows as Netflix’s “Raising Dion.” “Nations of Black directors, producers, costume designers, casting directors and actors. Filmmakers of every stripe and hue.” 

Early success 

Decades before Atlanta became Black Hollywood, Lee was shooting “School Daze” at the Atlanta University Center. 

He revolutionized television marketing with his series of Air Jordan commercials and introduced phrases like “jungle fever” into the lexicon. 

His “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” are considered two of the greatest movies ever made, although it took him until 2019 to get his long-overdue Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman.” 

TRISTAN FEWINGS/ GETTY IMAGES/TNS

Director Spike Lee attends the “American Skin” photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on Sept. 1 in Venice, Italy.

Boosted others’ careers 

Lee hates to say that he discovered anybody, but film veterans Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito blew up after appearing in Spike Lee Joints. 

Martin Lawrence, Rosie Perez, Robin Harris, Queen Latifah and Oscar winner Halle Berry made their film debuts working for Lee. Thirty years before she won an Academy Award for costume design for “Black Panther,” Ruth Carter dressed the “Wannabes” and “Jigaboos” in her first film, “School Daze.”

In fact, Barack Obama’s first date with Michelle was to see “Do the Right Thing.” 

“I am proud of giving people the opportunity to shine,” Lee said, “but let’s just say I contributed to the culture.” 

‘Spike was Spike’ 

When Lee arrived on the Morehouse campus in the fall of 1975, he probably weighed 120 pounds and much of that could have been accounted for in his huge Afro. 

Veteran newswoman and actress Rolonda Watts, who graduated from Spelman in 1980, said that she, film producer Monty Ross and Lee were some of the artistic “weirdos” on campus, who did their own thing, different from the buttoned-down Morehouse brothers and Spelman sisters. 

“Spike was a lot like those funny characters that he plays in the movies,” said Watts. “He was nerdy. He was loud. He was quiet. He was Brooklyn. He wore his sneakers and big socks and short shorts. Spike was Spike.” 

Shelton to Spike 

Although he is most identified as being from “Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” Lee is quick to remind you that he was born “Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20th in Grady Hospital” in 1957 in Atlanta. 

Lee wrote in his autobiography, “Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It,” that his mother started calling him “Spike” when he was a child to mark his “petulant and fiery nature, one that his four younger siblings found considerably irksome.” 

Lee’s parents met in college. Bill Lee, who would score many of Lee’s early films, graduated from Morehouse in 1951, and Jacqueline Shelton graduated from Spelman in 1954. His grandmother, Zimmie Jackson, graduated from Spelman High School in 1925 and Spelman College in 1929. His grandfather, Richard Shelton, was a 1926 Morehouse Man. 

Famous classmates 

Lee’s freshman classmates included: Martin Luther King III; Jeh Johnson, the grandson of Fisk University’s first Black president and a future secretary of Homeland Security under Barack Obama; and John S. Wilson, the son of a Philadelphia preacher, who after being elected senior class president told his classmates that he would one day be the president of Morehouse, which he was from 2012 to 2017. 

At the time they were at Morehouse, the enrollment hovered between 1,200-1,300 students, most of whom knew one another. Lee’s graduating class, with more than 200 graduates, was the largest at the time in the school’s history. 

Got homesick 

Growing up, like many Northern African Americans, Lee would spend his summers in the South: half of the time in Alabama and the other half in the Ashview Heights section of Atlanta at Zimmie’s, who taught art in Atlanta for more than 50 years, but because of segregation never taught a White student. 

“They missed all of her brilliance,” Lee said. 

Zimmie Retha Shelton died in 2006 at the age of 100. She saved all of her Social Security checks to pay for the education of her grandchildren. For her first-born grandchild, she helped pay for his tuition at Morehouse and NYU, before giving him seed money for his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It.”

While at Morehouse, every Sunday, Lee and some of his classmates would walk to Zimmie’s house for dinner, then spend hours on the porch laughing and joking.

“Morehouse is where I became a man, but also, there were a lot of trials and tribulations,” he said. 

Lee was a C and D student who wasn’t even motivated enough to come up with a major. He was homesick for Brooklyn, then in the first semester of his sophomore year, his mother, Jacqueline, died of liver cancer. 

In his memoir, Lee wrote that learning of his mother’s death was “the worst words a human can hear.” He continued that throughout college, his mother would come to him in dreams. 

After his sophomore year, he went home to Da Republic. 

‘Summer of Sam’ 

But the New York that Spike went back to in the summer of 1977 was a dump. The city was broke, and the Bronx was burning.

A blackout plunged the city into chaos, and David Berkowitz’s reign of terror saw the serial killer murder six people in what would be marked as the “Summer of Sam.” 

One day Lee visited his friend, Vietta Johnson, who had a Super 8 camera she wasn’t using, so she loaned it to him. 

Return to Atlanta 

Lee returned to Morehouse his junior year with a focus and a box full of Super 8 footage.

Morehouse didn’t have a film program, so someone sent him across the street to Clark College and Herbert L. Eichelberger, who was teaching film theory and film production through the Department of Mass Media Arts. 

Eichelberger encouraged Lee to make a documentary with his New York footage. In an homage to “Last Tango in Paris,” Lee’s first film, from that summer in New York, was “Last Hustle in Brooklyn.” 

Lee declared mass communications as his major, taking all of his classes at Clark College. 

If Lee was invisible as a freshman and sophomore, he came into his own as an upperclassman. He made straight A’s and used any slight against him as fuel. 

Directorial debut 

After Lee graduated from Morehouse, he enrolled in New York University to study film. His 1983 student film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” won a Student Academy Award and was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival.

In 1986, he made his directorial debut with the black-and-white provocative comedy-drama, “She’s Gotta Have It,” the first of his more than 30 full-length features and more than a dozen documentaries. 

Lee shot the film over 12 days in Brooklyn with a budget of $175,000 that he raised through grants, Zimmie, and his brothers at Morehouse. 

‘School Daze’ blow 

A big blow came in 1987 when Lee wanted to shoot “School Daze” on campus. 

Nobody from Morehouse, including then-President Hugh Gloster, had read the script, but they assumed that the movie was “gonna be a negative image of Black colleges,” Lee said. Gloster also had a problem with the actor playing the president of the fictional Black college. 

“Hugh Gloster told me, that the Joe Seneca, the great actor I chose to play the president of Mission College, was too dark and looked like a Sambo,” said Lee, his voice rising. “The stuff we were dealing with in the movie, we were dealing with in real life.” 

Invited back 

Morehouse kicked Lee off campus, so the movie was shot at Morris Brown and Clark colleges. 

“For several years, I was persona non grata on campus,” Lee said. 

E. Delores Stephens, who has taught world literature and composition at Morehouse since 1964, would invite Lee back to campus to speak to students. 

“I felt that Spike was wronged,” said Stephens, who Lee has long said was his favorite professor. “That was a PR decision and I am quite sure that Spike really wanted to film on campus. It hurt him.” 

In 2007, Lee donated $1 million to Morehouse to fund the Journalism and Sports Program to address the lack of Black sportswriters in the industry. 

Loud and clear 

When Spike Lee got on stage earlier this month to accept the Spike Lee Award at the Human Rights Film Festival, he spent 12 loud minutes telling his Morehouse story. 

Now married for 26 years to Tonya Lewis Lee and with two children of his own, Lee talked about his parents and Zimmie. He acted out a funny but poignant scene where he talked about expectations and dreams and warned parents not to discourage their children away from the arts. 

Surprise unveiling 

Before he could sit down, Lawrence Carter, dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, called him back on stage for one final surprise. 

They unveiled a giant painting of Lee that will be installed alongside oil paintings of men like King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi in the same chapel that he helped christen more than 30 years ago. 

The painting was as vivid and bright as an early Spike Lee movie, showing him in a regal purple suit grinning and holding his Oscar. 

Lee looked at it and smiled. He pulled out his iPhone and took a photo of it. 

He was speechless.

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