Spike Lee’s School Daze Never Ended

The iconic filmmaker looks back on three decades teaching at NYU

If you were to open up Spike Lee, you’d  probably find that he bleeds Knicks blue. You’d also discover that education is intricately woven into his DNA. His mother, Jacquelyn, taught Black literature at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn; and his dad, Bill, was a jazz musician and composer who mentored would-be maestros on the beauty of rhythm. His grandmother, Zimmie Reatha Shelton, taught art for 50 years in Atlanta; and his great-grandfather, Dr. William James Edwards, studied under Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Edwards later founded his own school, the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, in Alabama. (Snow Hill closed its doors in 1973 due to the desegregation of the county’s school system.) 

Despite a busy career as an Oscar-winning filmmaker—Lee has directed 24 features since 1983, plus numerous documentaries, concert films, music videos, and TV programs—he’s been teaching at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for 30 years. (He received an MFA from the school in 1982 after attending Morehouse College for undergrad.) He’s now a tenured professor of film at Tisch, as well as the artistic director of the graduate film program. “I wouldn’t call it moonlighting,” he says. “For me, this is not a part-time job.”

Unless he has a shooting conflict, Lee holds office hours every Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., giving students the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss their work, whether it’s a script, short film, or cinematography project. Then between 2 and 6 p.m., he’ll grab a bite to eat while his class watches a movie and breaks it down—usually, something they’re unlikely to have been exposed to before. 

This practice was inspired by Lee’s own time as a student at NYU, when he worked in the equipment room, checking cameras out to the likes of Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Mystery Train”), and shared a classroom with fellow Oscar winner Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi”) and Ernest R. Dickerson (“Juice,” “Bones”). The latter collaborated with Lee as a cinematographer on seven of his narrative features. 

Spike Lee photoshoot

“I don’t know how [students] can learn if I just show blockbusters. I think they get more out of being in class when we screen films they’ve never heard of [from] filmmakers they’ve never heard of—just [giving] them a different menu of films,” Lee says. 

Sometimes, however, he’ll break that rule. Last year, for example, he showed his class Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (2021) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), followed by an appearance from a special guest: Spielberg himself. 

“When the lights went up and Steve and I walked to the front of the class, people bugged the fuck out,” Lee says with a laugh. If there’s anyone to make an exception for, the Oscar-winning legend is a great candidate.

On the first day of class, Lee tells his students that he isn’t “speaking from the great temple of cinema,” but that he’s going to immerse them in the best of the best. 

“There’s some great shit made before [they] were born, and there’s nothing wrong with black-and-white films,” he says. “Blockbusters—that’s not what this class is about.” So, what is he aiming to get across? The answer is simple: “loving cinema.”

Spike Lee photoshoot

You come from a long line of educators. What did you learn about teaching from your ancestors?

They knew how important education is, and they loved it. They definitely didn’t do it for the money. But you can teach, educate—whatever [words] you want to use. I think it’s a blessing. I was very fortunate to have great teachers. At Morehouse, my English teacher would mark up my papers with red ink—just like my mother—as if they had slit their wrists. 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. 

What kinds of things have you been learning from them? 

That it’s even harder than when I was breaking in. I tell my students [on the] first day of class, “You got to bust your ass.” This Hollywood fairy tale of [becoming an] overnight sensation is some bullshit. You got to put the work in. We talk about films and directors and styles and that stuff, but I really stress that you gotta bust your ass…. There’s no skating [by]. You have to be dedicated, and you gotta have a tremendous drive and desire to make it in this very, very tough industry—particularly for people of color and women.

“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. ”

When you say it’s harder for those groups, what do you mean? Even though technology has vastly improved, it seems like it’s now much more difficult for a first-time director to actually get funding to make an independent, auteur-driven film. 

When I say it’s hard, I’m not talking about it in all aspects. When Ernest Dickerson, Ang Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and I were at NYU, there was no digital stuff. We were shooting film, and we were cutting our films on Steenbeck [flatbed editors]. [New] technology has brought democracy, because now people are shooting their films on their phones and editing on their laptops. Before, if you didn’t have your money, if you didn’t have any money, it was just hard to do. But even with the technology, I would still say it’s hard AF. 

Right.

And then 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. We’ve seen this plenty of times in sports, [when] the talented athlete is not always a winner, because the one that’s not as talented is going to work harder and is more driven; they do their thing, too. When you have the balance of talent and drive… The best example is my brother from Fort Greene, Brooklyn. My brother was born in Cumberland Hospital. Michael Jordan. Talent and drive. Brooklyn’s in the house!

Spike Lee photoshoot

What do you believe that an NYU graduate degree can do for filmmakers? 

You make your films here at NYU at the graduate film school. If you’re a director, you want to come out with a film. If you’re a writer, you want to come out with a script. If you’re a writer-director, come out with the film you wrote and directed; if you’re a DP, a reel of films you shot; editor, with films you edited. God willing, hopefully, you come out with a piece of work that can be shown to people who can give you a job or internship. A degree does not get you a job; it’s a certificate. But when I’m looking at people to hire—even [production assistants]—let me see your film. I don’t want to just see your résumé. I need more than that.

When you were studying at NYU, you had some battles there yourself. You made a short film called “The Answer” as a response to how D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was taught at the time. It’s a significant part of the history of cinema, but the faculty didn’t give students the proper context for its virulent racism. Do you remember how that made you feel? 

Here at the NYU Graduate Film School is where I got exposed to world cinema. I had seen several samurai films, but I didn’t know who Akira Kurosawa was growing up; and I learned about Kurosawa here. The premise for [his film] “Rashomon” was used for “She’s Gotta Have It.” W. Griffith is sometimes called the father of cinema, and he brought techniques to film that are still used today. I was upset because we did not learn about the context of the film. We did not learn, in that class, that before “Birth of a Nation,” the [Ku Klux] Klan was dead. When that film came out, the hoods went back on heads, and Black people got lynched, murdered, castrated—all types of stuff. That was left out. So I did a film called “The Answer” about a young African American writer-director who’s given the chance to do a re-imagination of “Birth of a Nation.” 

The studio didn’t like that, and also the faculty here didn’t like that film. So they tried to kick me out of the school; but I had worked very hard my first year in the equipment room. I had done such a good job that they gave me a TA-ship for the next year, and they did that before they did evaluations. So they couldn’t kick me out, because I already had the letter. 

“I do make [people] aware that the shy shit ain’t gonna make it. You got to make some noise… especially in this industry; you got to blow your own horn.”

I find it interesting that, more than 40 years ago, you encountered the same unwillingness from educators to talk about racism, given that right now, we’re going through this intense battle about whether the history of race and racism should be taught in schools. What do you think of this whole discussion about “critical race theory,” and how does it relate to your experience with “The Answer”?

I was not in the room when they evaluated my film. I’ve been told by people that they didn’t like the film, and no one ever told me why. I hate this word “assume,” but I could assume that they felt that D. W. Griffith is the father of cinema, and how dare a young whippersnapper like me do a film attacking him? 

But there is that guy in Florida, [Governor Ron] DeSantis. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started burning books in Florida like the Nazis did. This country has a checkered past with people of color and Native Americans, and we have to fight so that [it] can’t be erased. The very backbone, the structure, of the United States of America is built upon the theft of the land from the Native Americans, and then stealing our ancestors from Mother Africa. 

Think about this: The land was stolen from Native Americans. Black folks were stolen from Mother Africa to work the stolen land they got from Native Americans. Our ancestors were enslaved and provided free labor for over 400 years, working from can’t-see morning to can’t-see night. That is the faulty foundation of this country, and that cannot be erased. We have to fight [so] that these truths [are] not erased. Christopher Columbus didn’t do shit. He didn’t find shit. He was lost. [Twelve] presidents of the United States owned enslaved people. That should be taught. It’s the truth; it’s not a lie.

Spike Lee photoshoot

Have you lived through anything like what the protagonist of “The Answer” encountered at any point in your career?

Oh, of course. Most recently was with “BlacKkKlansman.” When I saw what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, I said, That’s the ending of the film. It wasn’t in the script, and [when] I screened the film for the studio, they wanted to take that out. I said, “Hell, no; hell to the nah—that’s staying in.” We’d be here forever going over stuff I had to fight for, to just do my work, to do these joints. But I feel strongly about the content of what we’re doing. And it really depends on the film, but I knew it would not be a leap to go from my famous double-dolly shot…to what happened in Charlottesville.

What’s changed over the course of your teaching career? How are the concerns of your students evolving, and what’s the same as it was 25, or even 15, years ago?

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The biggest 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.

Do you think you could teach crowdfunding to someone who might not have as big a personality as you do—someone who might be a little shy? 

You can’t teach it. I do make [people] aware that the shy shit ain’t gonna make it. You got to make some noise. Shy, no…especially in this industry; you got to blow your own horn.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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