A Strong Sense of Self

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It’s a parent’s job to expose their kids to the world around them

and what it offers, kids don’t know what they can do unless they

are exposed to it.

Iowe all my success to my parents and grandparents, because

they instilled in me a sense of confidence. Even

before I became a filmmaker, or wanted to become a filmmaker,

they worked hard to provide me with a sense of self

that has stayed with me in whatever I do or undertake.

Source: Printed with the permission from Shelton J. “Spike” Lee,

Writer, Director Producer.

We grew up in a very artistic family. My siblings and I

were exposed to the arts at a very young age. We weren’t discouraged

from the arts because it wasn’t a guaranteed future,

and I never heard my parents say not to try something because

there wasn’t money in it or it wasn’t a pursuit that they

would have chosen for themselves or for us. If we enjoyed

and pursued our interest, our parents and grandparents supported


Too often parents kill their kid’s dreams. I’m not saying

that parents do this on purpose; they want to protect their

children. They don’t want their children to go through the

heartache and the hardships that they experienced. They want

their children to be very productive and not worry about

money, so they guide them into a profession where they are

guaranteed to get a check every week. But that might not be

what the kid wants to do, or is good at, or will be happy at.

It’s a parent’s job to expose their kids to the world around

them and what it offers. Kids don’t know what they can do

unless they are exposed to it. They might have some extraordinary

gift, but if they don’t know what’s out there and

available to them, whatever that gift is, it unfortunately just

languishes. That’s why my family has played such a pivotal

role in my accomplishment, and I appreciate the family that

I had.

My turning point was in 1977. I was 20 years old, finishing

my sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Before coming home to New York City, my adviser told

me I really had to think about declaring a major. I really had

no idea what I want to go into or what classes I wanted to

take when I got to college, so I took and exhausted all my

electives first. Well, I was now done with my electives and I

had to focus on my major.

When I got home to New York City, it was during the

summer of 1977. That was a famous summer; New York City

was in dire financial straits, there was no money and there

were no jobs. That previous Christmas, I had gotten a “Super

8” camera, so I spent the whole vacation running around with

that camera, during that illustrious summer. Now of course

that was the summer of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam,

and of a massive blackout. It also was the first summer of

Disco in New York City, the dance was the “Hustle,” and in

many neighborhoods, you had block parties with D.J.s hooking

up their speakers and turntables to the street lamps. So,

it was a very exciting summer.

I made a film about that summer, a Super 8 film, called,

Last Hustle in Brooklyn, which was my first film ever. It’s

ironic that many years later, I was able to go back and revisit

that amazing summer of 1977 in a film called, Summer of

Sam. So after this personally groundbreaking summer for me

artistically, when I went back to school that fall and had to

declare a major, I knew that filmmaking was what I really

wanted to do.

Although I know my success is a result of the selfconfidence

my parents gave me, I can’t overlook some great

teachers who saw my potential. One teacher I had, who at the

time was ruthless on my grammar and punctuation, was an

English teacher by the name of Dr. Delores Stevens. She saw

that I had some talent and just “stayed on me,” so I would

stay with it. She would mark my papers in red ink and at

times it “looked as if someone had slit their wrists” on them.

But she wanted me to be my personal best and care about my

work and English. I cared. I didn’t like it at the time, but now

I see that she did me a great service, by not just letting me

slide and get by.

As a child, I was kind of quiet, close to my siblings, but we

would fight, and I always loved sports. In sports I could be

myself. I was very vocal when I was playing sports. I wasn’t

the best player, but always the one with the biggest mouth—

the spunkiest you might say. What was great about sports was

not only that I could be myself and was driven by my interest,

but I was also able to use that drive, in different directions

and areas of my life, and eventually direct it into my art.

To be an independent filmmaker you have to be relentless.

I have taken the same attributes that make athletes not

give up and keep going when the score is 100 to nothing, and

have applied it do my profession. I won’t quit. I think that’s

what you need to be when you are an independent filmmaker

because things aren’t set up for you to succeed. It’s just rough.

There were occasions when I did a couple of film projects

that I had to abort—that blew up in my face—which had me

seriously thinking about whether I should quit, but at the end

of the day I said “I’m not a quitter” and I didn’t quit.

My dream, for the future is to have my kids grow up

healthy and strong with knowledge of self, great self-worth,

and self-esteem because parents can’t be with their kids 24/7.

I feel sorry for kids today; they have to grow up much sooner,

with a whole lot more stuff than what we had to grow up—

sexual awareness, drugs. The things kids know and deal with

today, I wasn’t aware of until I was much older. Twelve year

olds want to be eighteen year olds. I can’t blame the kids.

There is a lot pressure and they see what’s out there in the

media. So I feel it’s my role as a parent to be tough and guide

my children so that they have the knowledge and wisdom to

make the right decisions.

I’m a disciplinarian as a dad. I am more of a disciplinarian

than my father was. Whatever we wanted to do was cool with

my father. He wanted his children to grow with total freedom

—that’s one philosophy, but that’s not mine. My mother was

forced into becoming the disciplinarian, because my father

wouldn’t do it. That wasn’t fair to my mother, because kids

grow up loving the parent who is more lenient. My mother

wanted me to succeed; she was always on me. My mother

really pushed. Her determination is with me and has stayed

with me.

You always hear about fathers and sons in relation to

sports, but I am careful not to leave my daughter out. My son

plays soccer and just recently my daughter decided that she

wants to play too, which is great. I try to be equal, I had to

learn to do that, my wife Tania has been great in reminding me.

My parents were interesting people; my father is a jazz

musician and my mother, who passed away, taught art history

and African American literature. I come from an artistic

educational background. My father and grandfather went to

Morehouse and my mother and grandmother went to Spellman,

which historically are the two top black schools. They

set a standard through their example.

My parents both taught and through them, I know how

important it is to teach. I love teaching. I’m in the film industry

now, and I can take what I am doing at that very moment

to the class and pass it on to future filmmakers. They can

learn from me as I learned from my parents and teachers. I’m

tough on the kids. I don’t let them become lazy. Things are

not instantaneous; there has to be hard work, elbow grease,

and a kid needs “get up and go” to be successful. So I’m always

on them, just as those people who cared about me were

always on me. I try to pass along to them a work ethic. You

can’t just preach to them, so daily I try to set an example.

That’s what was illustrated to me by my parents and teachers,

and I try to pass it along.

While growing up, when I looked outside my family, my

role models were athletes and, of course, also Dr. King and

Malcolm X, who were strong black leaders, but I also admired

Jackie Robinson and Joe Lewis. They not only changed the

landscape of sports, but the landscape of America.