With the Knicks’ long-awaited (and fairly surprising) return to the playoffs this year, it’s a great time to honor the films (or “joints”, as he calls them) of the world’s biggest Knicks fan.
Spike Lee has had a prolific and varied career, but if there is a central pillar to his work it’s been his dedication to ensuring his films provide a greater commentary on society overall beyond the edges of the screen. One thing that struck me as I wrote this list is how often I used the word “America.” And that’s because Lee is always providing thought-provoking commentary on American society, particularly the black experience in America.
However, Lee’s greatness goes beyond just his social criticism. He always makes interesting choices in his films with innovative visuals, vibrant color schemes, eccentric characters and bombastic soundtracks.Lee is always true to himself; he makes films the way he wants to make them and never compromises on his vision. This uncompromising style leads to some of the classics on this list, but also to some flawed films. However, even in Lee’s misses, there is always something interesting going on.
So here are ten of the best Spike Lee movies to check out.
10. Mo’ Better Blues (2000)
Mo’ Better Blues might be pound for pound the most entertaining of Lee’s films (at least its first three-quarters). It’s filled with fabulous Jazz, funny hijinks and snappy dialogue. It doesn’t have the profound social criticism that makes Lee so idiosyncratic, but it’s a good movie for just sitting back and enjoying the music, the banter and, of course, the always charismatic Denzel Washington.
Washington and Lee have to be considered among other all-time great actor-director pairings like De Niro and Scorsese or Mifune and Kurosawa. The two always elevate each other’s work and Washington’s charm makes any Washington-Lee film worth a watch. Mo’ Better Blue is not the pairing’s finest hour (see number 3 on this list), but it’s up there.
9. Bamboozled (2000)
Spike Lee’s homage to Network and The Producers cuts with his typical satirical rage. In Bamboozled, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a black TV writer, tries to stick it to his racist boss with a pitch for a modern-day minstrel show. The boss of course loves it, but to Delacroix’s initial surprise and disgust, so does the rest of America.
Lee is very direct in his criticism of the American media industry with his usual ‘in-your-face’ approach to social commentary. One of the film’s most powerful sequences is an extended montage with countless examples of blackface used in past movies and TV shows. The montage’s length alone makes long-standing issues of media representation impossible to ignore.
Some weird camera angles, dated music choices and unnecessary side plots (most notably a third-act love triangle) prevents Bamboozled from ranking among Lee’s finest work. However, the cutting and head-on commentary in Bamboozled is one of the best examples of what makes Spike Lee such a distinctive director.
8. Blackkklansman (2018)
Blackkklansman is among Lee’s more conventional films, a bit more “Hollywood” than his usual work. This means that the film doesn’t break new ground in a way that many of the rest do, but it also means it’s more accessible. The premise, “black cop infiltrates the klan,” is probably as enticing as any film he has made and is perfect to put butts in seats.
Lee likely strove to make a film that’s so accessible because he wanted to make sure his urgent message was delivered. And it’s a worthy goal, as Blackkklansman is masterful in the way it portrays its racist antagonists as deserving of both mockery and fear. This dual signaling calls out the need to be mindful of the lingering white supremacist threat in the 21st century.
While Blackkklansman lacks much of Lee’s daring flair, its cross-cutting climax is about as skilled a sequence as Lee has ever directed, and makes the film worthy of a watch for that alone.
7. 4 Little Girls (1997)
In addition to his long list of narrative films, Lee has made some strong documentaries. 4 Little Girls is probably the most notable of these films as it chronicles the 16th St Baptist Church bombing, a terrorist attack that took the lives of four young girls.
The documentary balances its history and its heart. It provides deep and nuanced context for the historical moment unfolding in 1960s Birmingham, a central flashpoint in the civil rights movement. Draped around this historical context, the friends and families of the four girls describe who they were in intimate detail, painting them as more than just victims, which truly drives home the loss.
4 Little Girls doesn’t just describe why a tragedy occurred, it also depicts what was lost in that tragedy.
6. Crooklyn (1994)
Crooklyn is clearly a film close to Lee’s heart. The love he has for Brooklyn, and the oddball characters that live there, is very much on display. Much of the film plays out like the first half of Do The Right Thing as lots of time is spent just getting to know the vast and eccentric cast of characters.
Crooklyn is somewhat autobiographical in nature, written by both Lee and his sister Joie and drawing inspiration from their childhood. The film succeeds at delivering a specific state of mind: the freedom, joy and adventure that comes with summer vacation.
Troy (Zelda Harris), a stand-in for Joie, is the central character of the film and some scenes will linger in seemingly minor interactions or moments in Troy’s life. Yet, these moments are likely not minor, instead they are formative memories from Joie’s life, those little moments that remain in our minds forever. And that’s what Crooklyn ultimately is, a recreation of childhood memories. It’s a film that’s full of bittersweet remembrance, a notable exception in a career filled with loud raging.
5. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Like much of Lee’s work, Da 5 Bloods is fairly divisive. It has plenty of flaws, is perhaps a bit overstuffed and the tonal shifts from tragedy to comedy to action are far from seamless. But that’s a pretty fair representation of what it’s like going on vacation in a place with a tragic history, where somber visits to museums in the afternoon can be followed by a visit to a club at night. Da 5 Bloods reflects the mix of sorrow and joy that would come with a reunion of veterans in Vietnam.
One of the Da 5 Bloods’ best elements is the thoughtful way it explores its themes. The legacy of the Vietnam War is viewed as a collective tragedy that hurt all those involved, and the Trump-era is a case of misplaced anger gone awry. It’s a wacky, genre-bending affair, but at its core is a well-articulated and nuanced depiction of pivotal issues from the last half-century.
4. Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man finds itself on the Mt. Rushmore of heist movies; a perfectly arranged thriller with suave, efficient thieves, sly cops and contemptible villains. It’s a crime thriller where the criminals are just as likable, and even as virtuous, as the cops. Heist films provide a lot of their fun by watching the heist plan unfold, and Inside Man certainly has that going for it. The plan is so brilliant and smart that it’s impossible to not smile when seeing how it all comes together.
While Inside Man is more of a foray into genre work than most of Lee’s films, it still has elements of Lee’s patented social commentary. It is a love ode to the diversity of NYC, and an intelligent criticism of racial profiling in post-9/11 America. The way Lee effortlessly weaves these strains into a well-crafted heist movie is a testament to his incredible skill as a filmmaker.
3. Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington is one of the greatest actors to ever appear on screen and Malcolm X is perhaps his greatest performance. It’s also certainly one of Lee’s best films, in large part because of that performance.
Washington portrays Malcolm X through many stages of his life in a performance that evolves throughout the film and he effectively embodies the powerful charisma of the man himself. I could listen to Washington sermonize as X all day and still be enthralled.
Malcolm X is an adaptation of Charlie Haley’s autobiography of the man, and it dives into the essence of what makes that book so powerful. The autobiography was an opportunity for Malcolm X to not just present his worldview, but to show how his life story informed that worldview. The film covers a huge amount of history very effectively as it details decades of Malcom X’s life without ever feeling overly long. Lee uses fast-moving montages to effectively tell how past events drive Malcolm X’s actions and views, as perfect a depiction of cause and effect as even seen in film.
Malcolm X is an incredible epic that earns every minute of its 3+ hour runtime, never dragging for a moment. It comprehensively and beautifully tells the story of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
From the moment the opening credits show the spotlight memorial at ground zero, you can tell 25th Hour is going to be an emotional film. 25th Hour is unlike every other film in Lee’s career. While all of his films are filled with strong emotions, most are films of the mind with pointed social commentary. 25th Hour is a film of the heart; it strives to archive a mood rather than make a critical point.
Monty (Edward Norton) is a man living his last day of freedom before a long stint in prison. His friends and family don’t know how to treat him: is he a ghost or still a living man? This story is a sad reflection of post-9/11 New York where New Yorkers didn’t know how they should behave in the wake of such incredible loss.
That deep sense of loss is what seeps out of every frame in 25th Hour. But it’s not just sadness alone that is depicted in the film, as there are also inklings of a repressed fury with nowhere to unleash it. There’s an easy line to draw between this simmering rage and the misdirected anger examined in Lee’s more recent works (Blackkklansman, Da 5 Bloods). You can almost see the story of 21st century America in the works of Spike Lee with the repressed rage that emerged in the shadow of 9/11 and the anger that was on full display during the Trump era.
1. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Lee’s magnum opus ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. A film as daring as it is original and vibrant. Do The Right Thing pulses with the passion of New York City. Its characters are memorable, its scenes are iconic and its emotional impact is enduring. Do The Right Thing exemplifies most of the classic ‘Leeisms’ (over the top characters, edgy social commentary, heavily stylized visuals, big music moments), and they all work well together with each element of the film enhancing the other elements. For all its bold flair, nothing feels out of place or flawed in Do The Right Thing.
Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, which is a travesty. The way it asks difficult questions about racial prejudice without giving any easy answers was unsurprisingly a little too bold for the Academy. Instead, they gave the top prize to Driving Miss Daisy, a film with a more optimistic vision of race in America, and one that puts racial divisions more in the rear view mirror than in the here and now.
However, three decades later, it’s the message of Lee’s film that seems more relevant today. The climax, where an instance of police brutality triggers a riot, certainly still felt incredibly relevant last summer. Do The Right Thing is undeniably a film that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time.
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