Spike Lee: ‘Morehouse is where I became a man’

On the 40th anniversary of his graduation: How the tiny black college helped create the most iconic filmmaker of his generation

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.

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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.

A student from the Morehouse Maroon Tiger interviews Spike Lee before the start of the Human Rights Film Festival awards at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Oct. 12, 2019. CONTRIBUTED BY SEAN MCNEIL

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

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, 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 enjoys a laugh before going on stage at the Human Rights Film Festival at Morehouse College on Oct. 12, 2019. CONTRIBUTED BY SEAN MCNEIL

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Inside man

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.”

Actor Denzel Washington starred in the Spike Lee film “Malcolm X.” CONTRIBUTED BY WARNER BROS.

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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.”

Director Spike Lee poses on the set of the 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID LEE

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Decades before Atlanta became black Hollywood, Lee was shooting “School Daze” here 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."

Spike Lee, known for his writing and directing, finally won his first Oscar this year: best adapted screenplay for ”BlacKkKlansman.” Here, he’s shown at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Feb. 24, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. DIA DIPASUPIL / GETTY IMAGES

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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.”

>> RELATED | ‘Do the Right Thing’: Why Spike Lee’s 1989 masterwork remains relevant

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.”

At the 20th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee is shown with his father, Bill Lee (who wrote the film's score).

Credit: Peter Kramer / AP

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Credit: Peter Kramer / AP

School Daze

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.

A photo of Spike Lee from the 1977 Morehouse yearbook. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

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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.”

During his senior year, Spike Lee (first row, second from right) poses with a group of friends in the 1979 Morehouse College yearbook. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

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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 right here 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.”

Spike Lee’s dad, Bill Lee (second from left), a 1951 Morehouse graduate, was a member of the College Quartet. He later scored several of Spike Lee’s early movies. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

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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.

Jacqueline Shelton Lee was the mother of filmmaker and Morehouse College graduate Spike Lee. A 1954 graduate of Spelman College, she died in 1977 of liver cancer while her son was a sophomore at Morehouse. CONTRIBUTED BY SPELMAN COLLEGE ARCHIVES

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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.

In Lee’s freshman year, Maynard Jackson, a 1956 Morehouse graduate, was two years into his first term as the South’s first black mayor, the Vietnam War had just ended, and the country was still reeling from Watergate. Just seven years earlier, Morehouse’s greatest son, Martin Luther King Jr., was gunned down in Memphis.

“All of those wounds were fresh and in the moment. So, we were talking about civil rights, Kwame Nkrumah, Adam Clayton Powell and Rhodesia. Listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis,” said Edwin Moses, who as a Morehouse student in 1976, won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles, a feat he repeated in 1984. “Those are the kind of conversations we were having. That is why that generation of the mid-’70s has been so strong. It was very serious.”

John S. Wilson, shown in the 1979 Morehouse College yearbook, is one of Spike Lee’s friends from his Morehouse days. Wilson later became Morehouse College president (2012-2017). CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

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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.

Jeh Johnson, shown in the 1979 Morehouse College yearbook, is one of Spike Lee’s friends from his Morehouse days. Johnson went on to become secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE

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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.

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.

In this 1929 photo of the Spelman College seniors, Spike Lee’s grandmother, Zimmie Jackson, is the third from the left in the front row. She graduated that year. CONTRIBUTED BY SPELMAN COLLEGE ARCHIVES

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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.

“I love Morehouse, but in a lot of ways, it is a love-hate relationship,” said Spike Lee, a 1979 graduate of the college, who’s shown at the Hotel Clermont. Despite his ties to the school, he couldn’t film his 1988 movie “School Daze,” which was about his time at Morehouse, there. ERNIE SUGGS / ESUGGS@AJC.COM

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During his freshman year, Lee got stuck with an older roommate, who wanted his roommate from the previous year.

“We got in an argument and he hit me, broke my glasses,” Lee said. “That (expletive) made my freshman year miserable.”

Things didn’t get much better. 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.

“It was rough, and I didn’t really have confidence in myself, so I was just wandering,” Lee said. “I looked like I was in junior high school, so I would go over to Spelman and they would say ‘you the little brother I never had,’ and pat me on the head like I was a puppy. I was Half-Pint. I didn’t know what to do.”

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.

“I had no job, no nothing and I needed something to do,” Lee said. “So, I started filming all the crazy (stuff).”

Recalling the story, Wilson recites a quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

“A number of us had our second day at Morehouse,” said Wilson, who introduced Lee to Martha’s Vineyard and later named him the godfather to his twin daughters. “He came back and said, ‘I want to make film.’ Spike found his voice.”

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

>> RELATED | Spike Lee's Oscar journey started at Morehouse and Clark Atlanta

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.

“The thing that got me excited about him was that he was a person of great vision. Even then,” said Eichelberger, who started teaching at Clark in 1975. “Unbeknownst to him at the time, he was just telling a story as he saw it. And that is what made him a good storyteller. He kept the camera rolling.”

Clark Atlanta University film professor Herbert L. Eichelberger and his prized student, Spike Lee. CONTRIBUTED BY WCLK RADIO

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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.”

Johnson, now an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago, has never seen “Last Hustle in Brooklyn,” but still has that Super 8 camera and promises to put it in a museum one day.

It was happening.

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

With his camera always in tow, Lee became one of the most active students on campus, forging relationships with the other artists on campus, as well as with former students still working in town like LaTanya Richardson, Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn.

“The thing I remember most was walking through campus with him and him saying that he was going to do movies and that people would know about him one day,” said classmate John Zachary. “I didn’t brush it off, because that is part of the experience of being at Morehouse. They teach you to have confidence. He was a hard worker and it ended up happening for him.”

John Zachary, shown in the 1979 Morehouse College yearbook, is one of Spike Lee’s friends from his Morehouse days. CONTRIBUTED

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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.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed several of Lee’s schoolmates from Morehouse, Spelman and Clark. Every one of them, unsolicited, mentioned two moments that defined him: the softball game and coronation.

Mo’ Better Blues

The 1978 Homecoming Coronation would be the first one held in the new Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, and Lee was tapped to direct the show.

All prior coronations were held in the gym. The previous coronation “was looking crazy,” as queens were prancing about the stage in skimpy outfits.

“At the first meeting, I tell the ladies of the different courts, there is gonna be a dress code, their breasts can’t be hanging out, and the slits can’t go to the crotch,” Lee said. “We cannot have black women in a chapel with their breasts and booties hanging out.”

The next day, a mob of frat boys, led by someone who is a preacher now, invaded rehearsal. Upset that their queens were given dress restrictions, they threatened to jump Lee before they were pushed back and retreated.

Lee won and all of the queens participated — fully clothed. The story became part of Lee’s narrative and he re-created parts of it in “School Daze.”

“It was like he was doing a Broadway show. It took him weeks to rehearse it,” said classmate Kevin Mason, a retired pediatric medicine professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “It was great.”

He Got Game

Somewhere around his sophomore year, after Lee was cut from the Morehouse baseball team, he formed an intramural softball league. He installed himself as commissioner and captained and pitched for a team called the Yankees.

In his senior year, the Yankees played the football team, whom they had never beaten, for the championship.

With two outs in the bottom of the last inning, Booker Moore, a “cock diesel” safety on the football team, was on second base representing the tying run. The batter slashed a single to the outfield, and Booker rounded third base like a freight train. Lee scrambled to cover home.

The ball and Booker arrived at the same time.

“Booker came in like the football player he was,” Wilson said, “and sent Spike into orbit.”

When Lee came down, his nose was bloody, his glasses askew and his Afro was covered in dirt.

The blow was so violent that he went to his room and vomited. Even today, Lee points to a scar under his right eye from the hit.

“I was (expletive) up,” Lee said. “But I’m telling you … I hung on to the ball. We beat them (expletives).”


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.

“I was a poor graduate student and I was sending him money because I believed in Spike,” Wilson said. “But a lot of guys from Morehouse were doing that. Who knew that people would be lining up around the block to see ‘She’s Gotta Have It’? We were just trying to help a friend. The brotherhood was pretty strong.”

On occasion, Lee will rock giant LOVE/HATE finger rings as a tribute to the late Bill Nunn, who as Radio Raheem, rhapsodized about love and hate in “Do the Right Thing.”

Actor Bill Nunn played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID LEE

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But the rings and emotions can also describe his relationship with Morehouse.

“I love Morehouse, but in a lot of ways, it is a love-hate relationship,” Lee said.

>> RELATED | Spike Lee and how 'School Daze' made black colleges matter

The 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.”

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.

Spike Lee directs a scene from “School Daze,” which was filmed in Atlanta and based on his time at Morehouse College. CONTRIBUTED BY COLUMBIA PICTURES

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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.”

Gloster retired from Morehouse later in 1987.

“My love for Morehouse never died. This is a great institution and I am part of a legacy,” Lee said. “But I knew that as long as he was around … I just chilled. But I just knew that I would be on the right side of history.”

During Morehouse’s inaugural Human Rights Film Festival on Oct. 12, 2019, Spike Lee (center) 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. CONTRIBUTED BY SEAN MCNEIL

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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. It was an idea that Lee developed with legendary sports columnist Ralph Wiley, and in 2015, Charles Barkley donated another million to the program, which has produced scores of journalists and sports industry professionals.

“The idea of all of this is to get more people of color having an influence on what is produced, and all of that has to do with the images that are presented of people,” said Ron Thomas, a contemporary of Wiley, who was hired as the program’s first director.

On occasion, when Lee is in town, he will pop into one of Thomas’ classes for an impromptu lecture. That is usually right before he goes across the street to CAU to lecture in Eichelberger’s class.

“Spike is always looking out for the program,” Thomas said.

Spike Doin’ Work

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.

Spike Lee leads Morehouse men in a school cheer during Morehouse’s inaugural Human Rights Film Festival at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Oct. 12, 2019. CONTRIBUTED BY SEAN MCNEIL

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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.

He threw in a couple of four-letter words, and when he got off stage, he huddled with Stephens, who told him, “You didn’t learn those words in my class.”

Lee nodded and mouthed, “Yes, ma’am.”

President David A. Thomas reveals Spike Lee’s portrait to him during Morehouse’s inaugural Human Rights Film Festival on Oct. 12, 2019. It will be installed in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. CONTRIBUTED BY SEAN MCNEIL

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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.