A few months back I saw and read this beautiful letter Spike wrote to his children about growing up and how film found him…
Remarkable and poignant, I wrote to Spike on Twitter immediately after reading this as it struck a chord with me…we both lost our mothers early….I explained how it touched me….Spike wrote back within an hour and thanked me for my words.
I still have to do a proper write up on “Malcolm X“, 1992…and “Do The Right Thing”, 1989. I wanted to throw a few things in here about both, but that would disrespect both films.
Please take a moment to read this wonderful, honest and loving letter.
By Any Means Necessary.
That’s the double truth Ruth.
“Film Found Me” | Spike Lee To His Children
Dear Daughter and Son,
Since the both of you were born, you have known your Daddy makes movies. It was something I did and will continue to do. I vividly remember the times where your Mother would bring you to the sets of the many various music videos, commercials, and feature films and it was a fun time. You both seemed amazed by all the people, equipment and lights. And you, my Son, would always ask if I was, “blowing up anything today, or is somebody getting shot and blood flying everywhere?”
The thought recently occurred to me as you, my Daughter, begin your Freshman year at a University, and you, my son, begin your Junior year in High School, that I never explained to you why Daddy makes movies. But before I get into that, the both of you would not be here if it weren’t for Cinema. I met your beautiful, intelligent, and talented Mother, Tonya Lewis Lee at the Congressional Black Caucus. I was there in D.C. to screen the Trailer for my upcoming Epic, Malcolm X. Your Mother and I met at that event. I got her number and sent her a dozen red roses to her job the next day. We were married within a year. So you are the direct result of Brother Malcolm X and that’s a wonderful Blessing.
Growing up in the (pre-gentrification) Fort Greene neighborhood of Da Republic of Brooklyn during the late 60’s and early 70’s was a beautiful time to be a Black Child. Our generation was born at the right time, too early to be drafted in the Vietnam War, but old enough to see the World changing around us. We witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights, Drugs, Free Love, The Antiwar Movement and the Great, Great Soul and Rock and Roll music of that Era. Michael Jackson and Prince were born in 1958, I was born in 1957.
I’m so sorry you never got to meet my Mother, your Grandmother, Ms. Jacquelyn Shelton Lee. My Mother was was way, way, ahead of her time. It was exhibited by the way she thought, wore her hair, dressed, and lived her life. In hindsight I guess she lived as much as she could before Cancer of the liver took her away from my Father, her Parents and my siblings, at the too, too young age of 41.
Mr. Bill Lee & Mrs. Jacquelyn Shelton Lee
It was your grandmother who planted the seeds in my young fertile mind to be a Filmmaker. She never said. “I want you to be a Filmmaker,” but it was the exposure she gave me to Movies and the Arts. My Father, Bill Lee, your Grandfather, is a great Jazz Bassist/Composer. He scored the music to my NYU Grad Film, and SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SCHOOL DAZE, DO THE RIGHT THING and MO’ BETTA BLUES. My Father hated TV and MOVIES, so I became my Mother’s Movie Date. She loved Movies and that love was passed onto me, her oldest child.
I remember my Mom taking me to see BYE BYE BIRDIE at Radio City Music Hall. And years later that came back to me. How? The Opening Credit Sequence in my third Joint DO THE RIGHT THING, with newcomer Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s FIGHT THE POWER ￼was inspired by ANN-MARGRET singing and dancing in the Opening Credit Sequence of BYE BYE BIRDIE.
Ann-Margret – Bye Bye Birdie
Rosie Perez- Do The Right Thing
I was 6 years old when my Mom took me to see that. Let’s think about that for a second. A 6 year old Black Kid from Brooklyn is being dragged to Radio City Hall by his Mother to see some dumb movie (I thought that at the time) and it had such an impact it reappeared 25 years later out of nowhere from my distant memories. I don’t know about you but I think that is some POWERFUL SHIT. To me that is a demonstration of the POWER of CINEMA and ART in general. And I thank my Mother for not listening to my protests. She was the Adult and I was the nappy headed, snotty nosed Kid who didn’t know a damn thing, but I thought I did. Back in the day Parents told you what to do. No time for discussion. You did what your Parents told you to do.
I grew up and went to Atlanta Georgia to become a 3rd generation Morehouse Man. I had no inkling what my Major would be or what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was I wanted to be a Morehouse Man (whatever that was) like my Father Class of ‘51 (Dr. Martin Luther King was a Senior when he was a Freshman) and my Grandfather Richard Jackson (Class of ‘27).
To say I was a disinterested, struggling Student would be a huge understatement. I was smart, but I didn’t give a shit about my grades. I was totally unmotivated. And on top of that, I was homesick. I missed my Mother and I missed Brooklyn. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t getting my ass beat with a paddle to join a Fraternity, and the Fine Wine young Ladies from Spelman College (where my Mother and Grandmother both graduated from) were not checking for me either. I don’t blame them, I looked like I was in Junior High School and wore big glasses. Watch my second Joint, SCHOOL DAZE again, it’s all there.
I would write my Mom weekly letters and she would return those letters corrected in Blood Red Ink. It looked like she had slit her wrist. There were so many grammatical errors, it pained her to say, “I can’t believe my Morehouse Son is a functioning illiterate.” Soon after that the letters stopped. I got a call from my Father telling me to come on home, “Your Mother is dying from cancer.” In shock I jumped on the first thing smoking. It happened so quick. One day she didn’t feel well enough to go to the School ST. ANN’s in Brooklyn Heights where she taught Black Literature. We knew it had to be serious because she never missed a day. Substitute Teachers would starve, because if she could walk she was gonna teach her Students Black Literature. She went to Brooklyn Heights for tests and the Doctors kept her. I stayed by her bedside for 10 days and then my Father suggested I go back to Morehouse and not miss anymore School. I agreed, my Mother’s condition was not getting worse. I kissed my Mother and flew back to Atlanta, went to classes, went back to my dorm, and called home. My Aunt Nancy (Mother of filmmaker Malcolm Lee The Best Man) answered the phone. I asked, “How is Mommy doing?” She stumbled. “Nobody called you?” I said, “No.” “Spike, I’m so sorry Jackie passed,” she answered.
Somewhere in the air between LaGuardia and the Atlanta Airports my Mother Jacquelyn Shelton Lee left this God’s Earth in her physical form. The reason I say that is because she has visited me various times over the years in my dreams. Your Grandmother talks to me, but I can’t ever ￼remember what she says. I do know she speaks words of Love and Wisdom and I welcome every one of her visits.
So, Daughter and Son, let’s get back to the point of this letter. My Mother had died, I’m 19 years old, lost and barely doing enough not to flunk out of the Dear Old Morehouse. Before the end of my Sophomore year I was called before my Guidance Counselor, she advised me to think about deciding a Major for the Fall semester of my Junior year, she told me to think about it long and hard over the Summer. I asked why. She quickly responded, “You have exhausted all your elective courses.”
I went back to my Brooklyn home seeking a summer job. However at the time NYC was DEAD ASS BROKE. There were no JOBS to be had. I had no JOB and NUTHIN TO DO. Over the years I had a very good friend, VIETTA JOHNSON. Her Mom, Ms. Johnson, treated me like the son she never had. Vietta was/is smart as a whip. She went to Stuyvesant High School, the best New York Public High School. Today Vietta is a doctor, she went to Princeton Undergrad and Harvard Medical School. Like I said, the Sister is tight, I liked her too in that way, but she was way out of my league, plus a lot taller than me so I never pursued it and didn’t want to mess up our friendship. So I talked to her best friend, Diedre Davis, we both went to John Dewey High School. Anyway, one fateful Hot as Blazes NYC Summer Day, I went to see Vietta. We were sitting around in her room and I noticed a box sitting in the corner. I asked her what was it. Vietta said somebody had given her a brand new Super 8 Camera with with a bunch of film. “I don’t want it, didn’t even open the box,” she said. I quickly answered “Veets, (her nickname) can I borrow it?” “Forget borrow, you can have it. It would just be collecting dust in that corner.” answered Vietta.
THANK YOU VIETTA.
I grabbed that Brand New Super 8 Camera and the box of film cartridges and BOOM. It began. Now I had something to do for the SUMMER. I spent that entire time running around NEW YORK (sometimes my Father would drive me around too) filming one of the most craziest SUMMERS IN THE HISTORY OF NEW YORK. Why do I say that? David Berkowitz (SON OF SAM.) THE BLACK OUT CAUSED BY THE RECORD BREAKING HEAT WAVE AND THE FIRST SUMMER OF DISCO. It was BANANAS and who knew I would revisit it many years later with my JOINT SUMMER OF SAM.
Life can be funny like that. I was lost, adrift, not getting along with my Father and still mourning the recent loss of my Dear Mother, when something told me to visit my Dear Friend Vietta Johnson, that special day. Too many events like that have happened in my life for me to believe it was an accident or coincidence. Whatever you may call it, some Force, Spirit, or even God, it told me to seek her out. I was lonely as hell and I knew where to go. That one day changed the direction of my whole life. There was no turning back. I also think I indirectly change others lives who later broke into this film/TV industry in front and behind the camera through 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.
I had finally found something that gave me “Purpose,” (nod to Lionel Ritchie.) I was Reborn. Before I was just getting along, but now with this newfound love of Cinema I had electricity flowing through my veins. I didn’t care what anybody said. I didn’t care about the odds. I knew what I had to do and I was committed. I had discovered Cinema, the power of Storytelling. I now knew I wanted to make Movies, wanted to be a FILMMAKER. I wanted to tell my STORIES. At this point nothing else mattered to me. And yes, I know that’s selfish, but I can’t lie. I became consumed with Films and it’s still with me today. I’m 3 decades in this game and I hope to match my hero Akira Kurosawa, he was in his 80’s still making Great Cinema.
Today as I write the both of you, it’s my passion for this beautiful powerful and expensive art form that has your Daddy on this KICKSTARTER GRIND. This is what your Daddy does, he makes JOINTS. I hope and pray that the both of you find your JOY and PASSION. I say my prayers every night because I’ve been blessed to do what I love. I love what I do. I’ve been blessed to do what makes me happy. When one is blessed to have a JOB that one loves, it’s not a JOB. A JOB is working at something you HATE. Most of the people on this Earth die hating the jobs they slaved on their entire lives.
May God Bless you with the guidance to find out what it is that you LOVE. To find out what you want to do with the rest of your precious young lives. Tonya, myself, your Grandparents and our Ancestors are proud of you. We want you to be Happy, Happy the way Filmmaking still makes me feel. FILM FOUND ME. I DIDN’T FIND FILM.
Love to Satchel and Jackson,
Daddy - Filmmaker
Da Republic of Brooklyn
By Any Means Necessary