Back in the early 1990’s I lived in Chicago. I was working in a small hotel in the city while I attended Columbia College. My memory is a bit hazy on the exact dates of this story, but it took place during one of the championship games when the Chicago Bulls were dominating the basketball world.
During that time, Michael Jordan and Spike Lee had a series of commercials for Nike featuring Lee’s character, Mars Blackmon, from the film “She’s Got to Have It.” They decided to shoot a commercial during the championship series in Chicago. That’s the backdrop for this story.
The sales manager for our little hotel scored a big win of her own. She struck a deal to have Spike Lee and all of the team from his 40 Acres and a Mule production company stay at our property while they produced the commercial.
Spike Lee staying at our hotel was a huge deal.
We didn’t tend to have many celebrity clients. And, as a film student, Spike Lee was an indie film hero. He had elbowed his way into Hollywood and become a player based on his talent, drive, and determination.
I worked the evening and overnight shifts at the front desk of the hotel. We had a glass security door across the lobby from the front desk, and when guests rang the bell, one of my jobs was to ‘buzz them in.’ Every day Spike Lee and his production team would head out to work. Then, at some point in the evening, the bell would ring and I would see him and his entourage waiting at the door for me to buzz them in.
It would be awesome to say that I struck up a friendship with Spike Lee and got to hang out with him and the crew. But the truth is I never said much more than ‘Good evening, sir.’
Like any busy high-profile person, Spike Lee had a team of people to take care of day-to-day business. And, other than a passing greeting, they were the folks I talked with the most. That’s not really a surprise.
Over the course of several days I saw Spike Lee come and go a number of times. He was always surrounded by people from his production company. I don’t recall him saying much, but it was clear from the behavior of everyone around him that he was in charge. Everyone deferred to him and showed him the respect he had earned.
Spike Lee was an accomplished filmmaker working on a high profile commercial shoot with the biggest sports personality on the planet – during the championship playoffs.
One afternoon I arrived at work and looked over the arrivals list to see who would be checking in that evening. There were two people scheduled to check in who had ‘DIC Entertainment’ listed as their company name.
I had never heard of either name.
They were scheduled to stay in two rooms on the first floor that were just across the lobby from the front desk. When they checked in they turned out to be two unremarkable looking white guys from the west coast.
They were the Money Men!
Later that evening, Spike Lee and his entourage returned from the game. I buzzed them in and they headed up to their rooms. One of the production company people asked if the money men had arrived before taking the elevator upstairs.
A short while later, Spike Lee came down on the elevator alone. He walked over and sat on one of the sofas in the lobby and waited until the money men came out and called him into the room.
I have no idea what deal Spike Lee was working on at that time. I have no idea how the money men interacted with him. What I do know is this: Until they arrived, Spike Lee was the top man. But once they showed up, it became very clear who was really in charge.
This is a 100% true story that I watched happen first hand. It’s not notable because anybody acted badly. The reason it sticks with me is because it drove home the power dynamic in Hollywood.
At that time, Spike Lee was a high-profile successful film director and producer. He ran his own production company and everyone knew him on sight. He had power. He had influence. He hung out with celebrities. But, at the end of the day, it was two nondescript white guys who were really in charge because they controlled the money.
As our country once again grapples with the the legacy of slavery and structural racial injustice, this story comes back to my mind.
I’m a middle-aged white guy who doesn’t quite know what to do to improve the lives of the black people in my circle of friends, my community and my country. I know the playing field isn’t level and that (consciously or unconsciously) I’ve benefited from that over my lifetime. I strongly believe that education, business ownership, real estate ownership, and generational wealth transfer are keys to long term change. But, the systems in our country are setup in overt and covert ways to block people of color from leveling up and obtaining true power and influence.
Until more nondescript black people (and other excluded minorities) begin showing up as the ‘money men’, board members, CEO’s, and other top positions of influence and power, I don’t think much will change.
I’m not sure how to make this change happen, but I’m pretty confident it is an important part of the solution to racial injustice.