Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with Drew McWeeny from HitFix. The first thing I thought of when Spike Lee Twittered that he was going to be making a big announcement was that he’s retiring from filmmaking. Maybe that’s a conclusion I shouldn’t jump to, but I do, and it makes me sad. Take a gander at Drew’s article above – he’s got a great story about the first time he met Spike.
And I have one of my own.
The date was 16 October 1993. I was a ripe 14 years old. My Uncles took me, my cousin Justin, and my cousin Mandy to the Penn State-Michigan game in State College. Before the game, we were wandering around any of the myriad bookstores/souvenir shops on the main drag through town when Justin and I came upon a few crumpled $20 bills laying in the middle of an aisle. No one else was around, and we pounced on them like they were grenades and we were selflessly giving our lives for everyone else in the store. Now, we each had $20 in our hands, a MONUMENTAL amount of money. Immediately, we had a big idea: we’d seen these huge, inflatable PSU helmets in another store, and we were going to buy them and wear them at the game. And so we did. And it was AWESOME.
Then, we went out and lost the game 21-13 (allow me to take a moment to express something eternal to me: Fuck Michigan). We were depressed, and there seemed to be little chance of recovering. But then one of my Uncles suggested we go down to the player’s area behind the stadium and try to catch them for some autographs as they exited the locker room. Our spirits perked. This was brilliant. We headed in that direction.
Pretty soon, players started to file out, and I more or less lost my teenaged shit. That was a loaded team – Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, Bobby Engram, etc etc etc…and pretty soon, they were all signing my helmet. I couldn’t believe my luck. I didn’t even mind at the time that I somehow missed my favorite member of the team, Ki-Jana Carter – I was TALKING TO MEMBERS OF WHAT WOULD BECOME ONE OF THE BEST PENN STATE TEAMS OF ALL TIME.
One particularly huge player was signing my helmet – it had to have been either Kerry Collins or Tyoka Jackson, who are Kaiju-sized human beings – when I see a madman running at me out of the corner of my eye. Before I can react, he’s dragging me away, and I’m more or less certain I’m as good as molested. Luckily, I quickly realize it’s my Uncle Rick, as he screams at me the reason for kidnapping me so roughly: Joe Paterno is down the gate, getting ready to get into his car and go home, and he’s signing a few things. This is huge: Joe never really signed autographs. What was different about this day I’ll never know, but there he was, holding court. This was a golden opportunity to get a signature from the man my family so idolized. This was the best day of my life.
Near the front of the queue, I’m waiting for my moment with the greatest college football coach who ever lived, when I hear someone’s voice in my ear.
Who dared bother me at this moment? Can they not see what’s about to happen here? Sonsabitch. I turn to the voice. It’s Spike Lee’s. He’s standing in front of me, smiling.
Now listen: at 14, I was neither cultured nor curious about the world. I was not a very “aware” suburban white kid. But I for DAMN sure knew who Spike Lee was. He hung out with Michael Jordan in commercials. He wrote and directed DO THE RIGHT THING and JUNGLE FEVER, both of which I was not “allowed” to have seen, but had. I didn’t know how to absorb either, and I wasn’t fully aware of what I was watching. They were too adult, too intellectual, too artsy, too out of my comfort zone for me to feel anything about – other than fear and intrigue. But I knew one thing: Spike Lee was DANGEROUS. And if what everyone I knew had said was true, he was a RACIST. This was not going to be good.
I. Was going. To die.
So, as if he were an impressionist painting in a museum, I just stared at him. He kept smiling.
“Do you mind if I sign your helmet?”
I can’t tell you the infinite ways in which this broke my fucking brain. Why is Spike Lee here? Why is he talking to me? Why does he want to sign my helmet? Where are my pants?
(EDITOR’S NOTE: My pants were still on me, but you’re going to have to remember, you know, that my brain was broken.)
So I did the only thing that could keep me alive. I handed it over.
He continued to smile at me, not immediately signing my helmet.
“How are you doing in school, young man?”
“Pretty good, I guess.” I don’t know why, when you’re a kid, you’re compelled to be self-deprecating around adults. Truth is, I’d gotten less than an A in a class once, in fourth grade, and I flipped the fuck out and called my science teacher after school and lit into her about it. In this case in particular, intimidation was definitely a factor.
“You guess? Alright, that’s good. You going to STAY in school?”
“That’s good. That’s very good. Staying in school is the most important thing, you know that?”
He started to sign my helmet. I started to pee a little.
“What about after school? What do you want to do with your life?”
At this point, I became inexplicably verbose. “I don’t really know yet. I like weather. I’ve thought about being a meteorologist. Maybe someone who chases tornadoes. But I also really like writing too.”
At this, he perked up. He’d finished signing my helmet, but he hadn’t handed it back yet.
“Oh yeah? You like writing? That’s good. You going to be a filmmaker?”
This froze me. What the hell was he talking about? I said I liked writing, not cameras. This guy has lost his shit, clearly. I was going to respond that I hadn’t, but he didn’t give me the chance.
“You like movies?”
“Oh yeah. I LOVE movies.”
“That’s good. So if you like writing, and like movies, how come you never thought about writing your own movie?”
I don’t know if he’d seen right into me or if he was just throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck, but that question FLOORED ME. I wrote a lot. I wrote in school, I wrote at home, I wrote in my head, I wrote everywhere. EVERYTHING was a story to me in one way or another. But I thought that was just how it was with everyone – I had no concept that this was a skill, much less something that an ordinary person could aspire to DO AS A JOB. Steven Spielberg made movies, and he was clearly superhuman, not a kid from Pennsylvania. So what is Spike Lee TALKING ABOUT? This one question had thrown my very universe into chaos, and he could tell.
“You should think about that. Anyone can guess the weather. How many people you think can make a movie?”
“Not many, I guess.”
“You guess right. You guess right.”
He handed me back my helmet, still smiling. I started to get the feeling that I was NOT, in fact, going to be killed by a racist.
“You stay in school, yeah? And you keep writing. Thanks for letting me sign your helmet.” He started walking away. I was so whip-spun by everything that had just happened that I couldn’t come up with anything to say. HE was thanking ME for LETTING him sign my helmet?????? What in the Christing fuck had just happened here? I knew I needed to say SOMETHING, so I blurted out the best I had:
“Thanks, Mr. Lee!”
He kept walking, but turned back, still smiling, and gave me a little wave. I SWEAR TO GOD I heard him chuckle, “Mr. Lee…alright,” to himself, but I can’t be certain. Maybe that’s just how I want to remember our encounter concluding. In any event, a couple minutes later, HE GOT IN THE CAR WITH JOE PATERNO AND THEY DROVE AWAY TOGETHER. In the immediate, my adolescent lizard brain was racing at what I’d seen. What the HELL was Spike Lee doing hanging out with Joe Paterno? Could there be two people with any less in common? How the hell are we going to beat Ohio State in two weeks? My God, Michigan just ruined our undefeated season…
And so on and so forth. I was still buzzing about my conversation with a dangerous racist filmmaker, but not in the way I should have been. To be honest, for years following, I thought of it as nothing more than a cool story – I meant to get Joe Paterno’s autograph, and I ended up getting Spike Lee’s. And WHY was he hanging out with Joe Paterno? Well, clearly THAT’S the interesting story here, and let me tell you my theories on it.
Seven years later, in the throes of college, I was struggling to pick a major. Art wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I wasn’t good enoughengaged enough with math or science to become a meteorologist. My God, what was I going to do with my life? I guessed Communications seemed most interesting in theory. OK, that was a start. But what did I want to communicate? And how? I mean, the only thing I REALLY loved doing is writing, but that was just a hobby. And…OK, I really loved movies, but those were just something you saw in your free time. That didn’t help me. But…wait a minute, didn’t they…yeah, they offered a screenwriting class here in the School of Media Arts and design. Writing plus movies. Maybe that made sense – I loved writing, and I loved movies. Why not give that a shot?
Wait a minute…where had I heard that before?
Twenty years later, I have to look back on that day, pure joy and thankfulness overtaking me. All of this, all that I have as part of my life today, started with a chance encounter, a scared kid, a wise man and a $20 piece of plastic.
I hope you’re not walking away, Mr. Lee. You have a whole other generation of filmmakers yet to inspire.