Creative Commons

Film director Spike Lee and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard have been working together for 30 years. Lee makes the films; Blanchard makes the music. “We’ve developed a shorthand,” Lee explained in a virtual panel discussion last week. “A mental telepathy terminology.” It seems the two have nailed down a process of collaboration, one that some in the film industry might consider unconventional.

Typically, a composer writes the score after the film is shot and edited. Lee and Blanchard operate differently. “Terence gets the script at the same time as the actors get the script,” Lee said. He added, “It’s a great disrespect to the composer to be the last one hired.”

Using this system, Blanchard has composed the score for many of Lee’s joints — “Malcom X” (1992), “Black KkKlansman” (2018) and most recently “Da 5 Bloods” (2020), which earned Blanchard an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.

In Lee’s films, composition happens as the movie is being made, without Blanchard on set. This is where the telepathy kicks in. Throughout the production process, Lee sends Blanchard the script, stills and clips of the film in progress. This keeps Blanchard in the loop — he’s gotten into the habit of making the stills the screensaver to his computer so that the film is a part of his daily life. This way, by the time the film is complete, Blanchard is already engrossed in it; he can already see it, feel it, even smell it.

On Wednesday, both Lee and Blanchard virtually addressed the University of Michigan as part of the centennial celebration of the School of Social Work. In a panel discussion, Lee and Blanchard were joined by Daphne Watkins and Robin Means Coleman. Dr. Watkins is a professor at the University’s Social of Social Work and Dr. Coleman is film producer and professor of communications (among other titles) at Northwestern University.  

Due to some unfortunate and unexplained technical difficulties, the program began 30 minutes behind schedule. While approximately 1,400 viewers were waiting at the scheduled start time, only 700 stuck it out for the show and just 471 lasted to the end. This didn’t stop the duo from bringing playful energy; later on, during some brief audio issues with a student question, Lee cracked, “You gotta get someone from Ohio State to do the —,” intentionally pausing to make a joking commentary on the audio situation. The panel roared.

Lee spoke to his virtual audience live from the headquarters of his film company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He sat in a fabulous high-backed chair I would’ve described as maroon and silky, but that he made sure to classify as “purple crushed velvet.” His voice sounded echoey, like he was speaking in a large room; I sensed the grandeur of high ceilings and wide-open studios.

Behind him was a portrait of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. “This is like a museum,” Lee commented, wide-eyed, on the space. “This building is a testament to our Black artistry.”

The space is filled with the presence of greats, mainly in the form of honorific portraits. “I’m looking at Denzel right now!” Spike cried. “Harry Belafonte is downstairs.” On another wall, there’s an African National Congress flag signed by Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during Apartheid. Lee repeated this last part for emphasis: “During Apartheid!” He leaned back in his velvet chair with awe. “Every day I come to the office, I see that!”

Throughout the panel discussion, Lee and Blanchard stressed the importance of honoring the stories of people who have come before.

“There was some great shit done before you were born,” Lee said. Lee, who also works as a professor and artistic director of the Graduate Film Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, tells his students this all the time. To him, young creators can only benefit from doing their homework on their predecessors, “whose shoulders you could be hoisted from, if you know who they are!”

A set of shoulders like those is especially important for creatives who come from marginalized backgrounds. Blanchard remarked, “You know how frustrating it is to teach kids who have talent and have interests in a whole lot of areas? And then the reality of it is, you don’t want to tell them how tough it’s going to be to make a career in this business, not based on your talent, but just on who you are.

Artists like these have something to share with the world, but nowhere to share it. “We need to open more doors,” Blanchard said.   

Lee stressed that the current number of “Black folks in front and behind the camera has never, ever, ever been this high.” To make sure this isn’t just a temporary trend, Lee sees a need for more Black people in gatekeeping roles in the industry. Both Blanchard and Lee imagine a future in which Black artists are in positions of power to decide who makes what, what gets made and how it gets made.    

To articulate this thought, Lee made a reference to Leslie Odom Jr. in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Put bluntly, Lee said, “We gotta be in the motherfucking room.” He then started singing his own rendition of “The Room Where It Happens,” with accompanying laughter from Blanchard, Coleman and Watkins.

If Black people were previously in the room Lee mentioned, it probably wouldn’t have taken until September 2021 for Blanchard to be the first Black composer to have his opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera. “A lot of people who came before us didn’t even get this recognition. Like, I’m the first person to have an opera to go to the Met,” Blanchard said. “Do you think I was the first qualified?”

“No,” Lee shouted in affirmation.      

Instead, Blanchard mourns the many “generations of expression” we’ve missed out on. Now that Blanchard is on the brink of making history (not the first time), he seeks to define American opera. He aims to compose works that draw Black Americans in, that let them see themselves and their experiences on an opera stage. 

Because of works like Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and Lee’s ever-growing filmography, I’d venture to say that both Blanchard and Lee have sealed their fate as idols on the walls of young creators for years to come. As Blanchard said, he and Lee have made “a body of work that young people can go to and be proud of.”

At the end of the panel discussion, Lee and Blanchard took several questions from students in the audience. Sure enough, taped to the wall behind one such student was a hand-drawn portrait of Lee, with the name “Spike” sketched out below his likeness. Lee cracked a joke about it afterward, but I saw it as fitting.

A new generation of visionary artists has already arrived, and they’ve chosen solid shoulders to stand on. And to all young composers, filmmakers and creators, Blanchard insists: “This is your moment.”

Daily Arts Writer Gigi Guida can be reached at