April 1, 2004
Make It Happen
What makes the best successful? How do they ultimately reach their goals? That’s what we asked Spike Lee, the provocative, award-winning filmmaker of such classics as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and Elaine Jones, the former president and director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In her classic, Take a Lesson: Today’s Black Achievers on How They Made it & What They Learned Along the Way, Editor-At-Large Caroline V. Clarke discovered how they reached the pinnacle of their careers and still retained their integrity, enthusiasm, and sense of mission.
FORTY ACRES AND A MULE FILMWORKS
I always visualized myself being successful at making films. If I couldn’t have done this, I don’t know what I would have done. I never even thought about it. I never thought, what if this doesn’t happen, what else could I do? I didn’t want to be a filmmaker until my sophomore year in college. But once I knew that’s what I wanted to do, I was going to make it happen. There was no other choice.
I believe in destiny. But I also believe that you can’t just sit back and let destiny happen. [The former Major League Baseball manager] Branch Rickey had a famous saying: Luck is the residue of design. A lot of times, an opportunity might fall into your lap, but you have to be ready for that opportunity. You can’t sit there waiting on it. A lot of times you have to get out there and make it happen.
I have always been driven in that way, but there wasn’t a lot of evidence of that early on. My mother, Jacqueline Lee, was the one who pushed me and my sister and brothers. My father had expectations for us, but his way was the hands off, natural way. His philosophy was, let them do whatever they want and somehow they’ll do the right thing. So my mother had to be the bad cop, the enforcer. All of us were expected to excel. I remember, if I came home with a B, she’d say, “Well, I bet a lot of those Jewish kids are bringing home A’s.”
So very early on it was instilled that we couldn’t just be as good as our fellow white classmates. We had to be three, four, five times better if we really wanted to get ahead and make a way. And she did a great job of explaining that it is not fair, it’s not right, but that’s the way it is.
My father went to Morehouse, my grandfather went to Morehouse, and my mother and grandmother went to Spelman. Since I was the first born, it was expected that I go to Morehouse, and I had no problem with that. It was just a great feeling being in an environment in which all your classmates and all your teachers were African Americans. And it wasn’t just Morehouse. It was being part of the whole Atlanta University Center—Spelman and Clark and Morris Brown. It was