‘Don’t fake the funk’: Spike Lee opens up about AI, overnight success and leadership

During a fireside chat on day two of the LinkedIn Talent Connect Summit, the celebrated film director imparts his wisdom

Credit: LinkedIn/Tony Chung; Bounward-DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Spike Lee has directed and produced more than 30 films, including Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman, and has received an Academy Award, an Emmy and two Baftas. He has an impressive portfolio CV that includes being a businessman, the owner of a film production firm and a tenured professor at NYU.

So when he sat down for a fireside chat with Leah Smart, editor of LinkedIn News and podcaster of Everyday Better, at the LinkedIn Talent Connect Summit in New York yesterday (4 October), people were ready to listen.

He began by discussing the evolution of Do the Right Thing, from its inception to its current state, as well as how he thought about and expressed himself via work. He noted that while he was growing up in Brooklyn, he did not know what to do, and at one point he wanted to play second base for the New York Mets – but “genetics”, he chuckled, were against him.

Lee went on to talk about how, while in his sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, his mother died, leaving him feeling "lost". He went home to Brooklyn for “one of the most difficult summers in New York" in 1977 and a friend handed him a super 8 camera she was not using. 

He began recording all of the "crazy stuff that happened that summer" and returned to school for his junior year, declaring a major in mass communication films and telling himself: "This is my mission, and I want to be successful."

The host asked Lee if he would talk about how he took the “hook” of following his curiosity, which “some of us don’t do”. Lee said he grew up in an artistic family, adding: “I’m the first of five children, and my mother would drag me to museums and plays.” She desired for her children to be well-rounded and “those seeds were planted”, he said.

He added that parents should try to be understanding before "crushing their children’s dreams", emphasising that he has known several successful people from high school and college who, when they go to work every day, "have to press that snooze button 10 times because they don't want to go to work”.

"And the happiest people on this planet are people who have a job, that is not a job," Lee said, emphasising that we all love our children and want the best for them, but "don't crush their dreams”.

Lee also talked about his experience as a professor at NYU. "My students are grown, and not all of them came regularly to film undergrads," he said. “We have lawyers, people who have had excellent jobs – doctors, architects – who have stopped and stated that they have always wanted to be filmmakers." 

He also gave a leadership tip, saying that the first thing he says to students in his class is that “some things might work for you, some things don’t, and don’t think whatever I say you have to do”. 

Lee said that anyone in business thinking they can “fake the funk” or do not have to “buss their ass” is wrong. He explained that you have to “learn” and one of the worst things is that the "lie has been told to the young people that no matter what they are talking about there is something called overnight success. That's BS.”

On the subject of artificial intelligence, which was heavily discussed during the conference, Lee was asked by the host if it was fair to say he was sceptical of AI in the future, to which he replied: "Sceptical, that's some ********."

He said he speaks as an artist and does not want studios writing screenplays for films, TV shows and other media. He stressed that what is sometimes "overlooked” is the human experience, adding that he does not believe machines have "ownership" and that robots “can do good or might do good", but he is entirely opposed to their use in art.