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Back in 1976, during his sophomore year at Morehouse, Lee picked up a Super- 8 camera for the first time. As the oldest of five children growing up in a middle-class section of Brooklyn, he wasn't particularly interested in movies; he loved sports. But Lee's parents were creative people who exposed their children to the arts, instilling in them a deep appreciation of culture. His father Bill Lee, a bass violinist who played with Odetta, scores all his films. His mother, who nicknamed Shelton Jackson Lee "Spike," taught black literature until her death in 1977. Reared in a home where there was a long tradition of education, Lee credits his family with being the major influence in his life.
The director's fascination with cinema blossomed at Morehouse, where he was the third generation of Lees to attend the all-black college. During the summer of 1977, Lee made his first film: he drove around Brooklyn and Harlem the day after the New York City blackout and filmed the looting. Even then, Lee's cinematic eye was drawn to the absurdity of events that unfolded around him. "In a lot of ways it was funny to me, like Christmas," he says. "People were walking out of stores with color TVs."
After graduating from Morehouse in 1979, Lee enrolled at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. In his first year there, he had the temerity to parody D.W. Griffith's classic The Birth of a Nation in a 20- minute student film that took the great director to task for his portrayal of blacks in the Old South. He went on to win a student director's Academy Award for his thesis, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, about a Brooklyn barber who is torn between legitimacy and petty crime. After graduation, he began work on a drama about a young black bicycle messenger but was forced to abort the project when financing fell apart. Though he says it was the most painful period in his career, the resilient director turned around and started working on another script. Using some of the same actors, he filmed She's Gotta Have It in a rented restaurant attic over twelve days, editing in his studio apartment. The 1986 picture, produced on a shoestring budget of about $175,000, raised mostly from friends and family, plus an $18,000 grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, made about $8 million at the box office and catapulted Lee out of obscurity and into the spotlight.
In the serene editing room at 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks (named by Lee for the never realized proposal for every freed slave after the Civil War), a renovated three-story firehouse in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, Lee is relaxed working with a coterie of close friends, many of whom go back to his days in college and film school. Those who know him say he is usually quiet, sometimes temperamental. "Spike is warm, but if you expect him to say, 'You look so wonderful,' you can forget it," says Ross, who is co-producer of Do the Right Thing. "At the same time, he will throw two Knicks tickets on your desk and say, 'I can't make the game tonight. Why don't you go?' " On the set, he is serious and organized, his directorial style, hands-off. "His touch is so light you don't even know it's there, yet it is," notes actor Ossie Davis, who plays Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing.