Spike Lee burst onto the scene with She’s Gotta Have It a low-budget indie (turned into a Netflix series in 2016) that had the eye and craftsmanship of a born filmmaker. Lee brings a historical perspective to all of his films. Not only does he use his storytelling ability to deliver endearing stories of Black people in America, but also to educate an audience who otherwise might be ignorant to the specificity of particular civil and social struggles; as such, his filmmaking isn’t only rooted in the history of his people, but in the history of cinema as well.
Honing in on the sensibilities of the French New Wave, old Hollywood melodrama, and the American New Wave in the 70s, Lee’s filmography is virtuosic, from his Oscar-winning documentaries, his bevy of genres, and concert films as well. His love of film knows no bounds and continues to make incredible strides as a filmmaker and tastemaker. From his key collaborations with superstar Denzel Washington to his comedic diatribes in the heart of New York City, Lee is one of America’s singular cinematic voices, who has shown no sign of slowing down. Here Spike Lee’s 10 best movies.
10 Da 5 Bloods
Even some 30 years into his career, Spike Lee’s filmmaking voice is just as brazen when he stepped foot into the cultural conversation. Da 5 Bloods depicts past traumas coming full swing into the present, finding the connective tissue between the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, two wars that Lee wants to show still rage today. The film features an all-Black Vietnam squad that are still friends into their old age as they re-team to find the gold hidden by their fearless leader—a stunning supporting turn from Chadwick Boseman as their fallen hero—in an attempt to reclaim their past. Da 5 Bloods is Lee in all of his anger-inducing, maximalist glory.
9 Inside Man
While Spike Lee joints are a genre of their own, he’s able to step into familiar territory with ease and knowledge of the genre’s cinematic history. With Inside Man, he calls upon his go-to muse, Denzel Washington, and a stacked supporting task to take us through what could’ve easily been another heist programmer. Instead, Lee delivers a twisty bank heist and hostage negotiation into a deliciously stylish exercise in plot mechanics and aesthetics, creating one hell of a popcorn flick.
8 School Daze
Criminally underrated in the college movie canon, Spike Lee’s second feature is an ode to HBCUs and all-Black fraternities. Starring Laurence Fishburne, in his only collaboration with Spike, School Daze is a rousing, funny, and clear-eyed look at youthful expression. Stylized in Lee’s classic go-for-broke aesthetic, the film is not only about how young Black men and women learn to be themselves in a college setting, but who historically denied their right to an education and why, transcending the genre of raunchy 80s comedy into something far more poignant with a scorcher of an ending that acts as an outcry.
A filmmaker known for his audacity, Crooklyn appears to be the opposite. Crooklyn floats by with ease because Lee’s elegant direction in his depiction of his family in the 1970s feels like a far cry from his previous work. Lee’s family drama emanates warmth and love. But, even in its series of vignettes, the realities of supporting a family of 5 kids come with its struggles. Delroy Lindo shines as the hard-nosed musician as does his counterpart, Alfre Woodard, who plays the school-teacher mother trying to keep the kids together when the marriage appears to be crumbling. Crooklyn sees Lee at his most sentimental while never sacrificing story for a cheap laugh or cry.
Spike Lee’s films are in conversation with the history of cinema. In his audacious satire Bamboozled, Lee uses his voice to attack the history of minstrel shows, performative blackface, and racism towards Black art. While at times darkly funny, Lee’s message about white corporations profiting off of Black bodies is poignant, especially when they lose ownership. It’s a heartfelt memoriam to the history of Black performers that was rightfully immortalized by the Criterion Collection early last year.
Originally meant to be a Martin Scorsese picture that he happily gave to his good friend Spike Lee so that Scorsese could go off and make Casino, Clockers is the perfect precursor to the HBO Series The Wire. Lee perfectly captures the essence of failing to escape your neighborhood while also tapping into the work of racist police officers who care little about the lives they’re attempting to destroy. All shot in the vibrant, gripping style Lee is known for with an incredibly charismatic debut performance from Mekhi Phifer as the drug dealer “Strike” caught in the middle of a murder conspiracy while battling the cops and his ruthless kingpin boss played by Delroy Lindo.
4 The 25th Hour
Spike Lee’s voice is tethered to New York City. It was only fitting that such a passionate filmmaker who is unabashedly himself and represents New York made the first film to tackle the post-9/11 world we were all living in. While not the whole story, The 25th Hour looks at the last day of freedom for a drug dealer played with tenacity by Edward Norton, as the themes are hand in hand with the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. A community of people attempts to understand where Norton’s character went wrong and what collective trauma looks and feels like. Lee’s attentive filmmaking let mere moments feel like a lifetime as his film questions: what would you do with your last day of freedom?
3 He Got Game
Not only epic in scope in its portrayal of young superstardom and how college athletes struggle to navigate the field of sports corruption but also biblical in its depiction of fathers and how they raise their sons. Lee uses his immaculate eye for compositions to shoot the first-time actor and athlete Ray Allen as the young basketball prodigy “Jesus Shuttlesworth”. When Jesus’ criminal father, played by Denzel Washington, tries to manipulate his decisions to better his own life, the two face off on the only thing they both love: the court. The film, scored by Aaron Copland, gives He Got Game a cinematic grace, showing basketball as the beautiful game it is.
2 Malcolm X
Done in the vein of the old American epics that recall the works of David Lean, Spike Lee called upon his man, Denzel Washington, to give voice to a revolution. Essentially having to play three different characters, Washington’s performance paints a vivid portrait of a criminal, reformed to radical ways of thinking in prison about white violence and white supremacy. Lee would eventually have to turn to rich friends he made in the industry to properly fund the project, so he could tell Malcolm’s full story. The film is ambitious but immaculate in its design. Spike crafted the nuanced picture of a complex and radical activist that Malcolm X deserves.
1 Do The Right Thing
A seminal cinematic text on the intricacies and complexities of racial dynamics in America, Do the Right Thing served as a warning and firestorm of what could happen when people are confronted with their racial biases. Brooklyn doubling as the perfect microcosm of America’s multiculturalism, Spike Lee’s film was a fury of specific character portrayals, uncomfortable dialogue, and urban cultural cornerstones. Do The Right Thing is one of the great American films ever made, and it came from no other than one of New York’s great storytellers.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness could require more re-shoots, as Sam Raimi needs to see a final cut before he can say filming is done.
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