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Filmmaker and Morehouse Grad Spike Lee ‘79 Reminisces About “School Daze”

The summer after Shelton “Spike” Lee’s sophomore year at Morehouse, his advisor told him that he needed to choose a major. It was the summer of 1977 and Lee was home in Brooklyn, visiting a friend.      

“In the middle of the room, there was this box with a Super 8 camera in it and a box of film,” Lee told a crowd in the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center’s Emma and Joe Adams Concert Hall on March 27. 

“I said, ‘What is that?’ said Lee, a 1979 Morehouse graduate.  “She said, ‘It’s a camera.  I don’t want it.  Someone gave it to me.’  She said I could have it. A camera and a box of film.   That stuff was not circumstance.  That was not a mistake.  The spirit guided me to her house that day.”

With that, an iconic filmmaker’s career was born.

It’s one of many stories Lee told during his appearance, where the focus was on his second major film, “School Daze,” which he shot in the Atlanta University Center in 1987 and was released a year later.  The film examined black college life and issues that divided students and administrators during that time.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 25 years, but it has been,” Lee said.  “For me the greatest testament for this film in my opinion is people still come to me and say, ‘I went to a black school because I saw “School Daze.”’ People do that and they are young and just saw it on TV.  It’s not like they were around and saw it in the theater.”

Lee had the audience laughing and applauding for nearly two hours as he elaborated on the making of the film, showed and explained the film’s music videos, and told some of the behind-the-scenes stories.  For instance, he laughed at his decision to create tension by putting one of the film’s groups in a nice hotel and the other in a not-as-nice venue. 

But Lee also took the time to tell the audience how education needs to be celebrated by young people.

“The whole thing has become topsy-turvy,” he said.  “Ignorance is championed and intelligence, well, you’re corny if you’re called smart. We’re talking about young black kids who are at that critical age where they will succumb to peer pressure and will fail on purpose because they don’t want to be called a sellout.  This is genocide. There is nothing smart about being ignorant.”

President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79, one of Lee’s closest friends since the two met during their freshmen year, said it is why he likes to show audiences the “Wake Up” scene from “School Daze.”

“I think that’s what Spike has been trying to say quite clearly with his art and his life,” he said.