This August, while researching my profile of Spike Lee for The New York Times Magazine, I spent a few days with him at his summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. When writing about celebrities, it’s easy to forget that they were not always famous and, in most cases, have worked very hard at whatever it is they do. On one of my last nights on the Vineyard, I took an Uber to Menemsha Beach to see the sunset and contemplate Lee not as a symbol or celebrity or even auteur but as an actual flesh-and-blood black man from a middle-class family in Brooklyn, who has made a smashing success out of his life completely on his own terms. It was deeply inspirational.
Menemsha is famous for its sunsets, and that evening, an earnestly American crowd of overachievers ambitious to do the sunset properly gathered at the shoreline, drinking beer and feasting on lobster. I sat down among them, a near 50-50 mix of corporate blacks in polos and Nantucket reds and pimply faced white teenagers discussing the intricacies of mumble rap. Someone flew a drone overhead and a guy in a Skadden Arps T-shirt said to himself, “What is this? ISIS?” Anything resembling a threat seemed very far away. The sun reddened, and people began to get serious about their selfies. A white tween posing on a rock, squealed to her friend, “We’re so dark! Do I look black?” I may be mistaken, but in the moment, it seemed to me that, along with the casual offensiveness of her comment, there was also a hint of aspiration. And this was somehow inspirational, too.