Forget everything you know about Spike Lee, the man. Forget his outspokenness. Forget his confidence that borders on annoyance. Forget the controversy, the buzz, the hype. Forget all of that, and you're still left with the most prominent African-American figure in the history of film. We’re left with a man who has done more for American cinema than nearly anyone of his generation. And he’s done it, like it or not, by being himself – making the films he wants to make with the people he wants to make them with.
I’ve seen all of Spike Lee’s films. He’s one of my all-time favorite directors. His style is unique and branded. You may not like what you’re seeing (because, as much as I hate to admit it, the man has made some seriously crap films), but you know damn well who made it. I love and respect his work for its overall audaciousness. Spike Lee is a man who never apologizes for who he is, and, thankfully, his films don’t warrant an apology either.
(Note: Spike Lee has made a number of documentaries, many, but not all, of which are listed here. This is a breakdown of each of his narrative films, with a few documentaries mixed in.)
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Nola Darling’s gotta have it. She’s gotta have it from the egotistical model, Geer, the kind-hearted, Jamie, and the nerd, Mars – all of which she dates simultaneously, with little regard to their respective feelings. She doesn’t want to commit, she doesn’t want to drop them, she just wants… it.
If there’s a reason to respect Spike Lee’s first film, it is because it's so clearly evident of the boldness that would continue through Lee’s entire career. The film, in short, has serious balls. It’s raw in its style (shot in noisy black and white), frank in its content (Nola gets what she wants often), and amusing in its execution. It isn’t one of my favorite Lee films, but it does perfectly set the scene for what is to soon follow. B
School Daze (1988)
School Daze chronicles the hardship of inter-racial superiority at an all-black college; about how darker-skinned black people consider themselves a higher class of their race than those who are lighter skinned. The film’s main fault is the way in which it chooses to deliver its story, which is with misguided humor and some completely random and unfitting musical numbers. Because of this, School Daze ranks among my least favorite Lee films. It’s too narrow, too plain, and too boring.
The first time I saw it, I sat bored to tears, and was fully prepared to write it off as a sheer misfire. And then its final scene happened.
Like much of the film, the final sequence begins out of nowhere and makes little to no sense as it’s happening. But the ending makes everything click perfectly in to place. It’s the kind of ass-kicking moment that makes you sit upright in your seat and ask if what just happened is as brilliant as you think it is. I won’t dare reveal what happens, but know that the final moment of School Daze represents the very best use of breaking the fourth wall that I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t redeem the film in full, but it comes damn close. The end: A+, the whole film: C-.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Everything you’ve read and heard, all of the praise, the controversy, the epic feel – it’s all perfectly accurate. Do the Right Thing is a film that feels larger than life; it’s as fine an accomplishment as anything produced from American independent film.
I can revisit Mookie and the characters in his Brooklyn neighborhood anytime, because it always feels new. There’s always some fresh motivation to be discovered, some reference or agitation that I may have previously missed.
The film is as hot as the day in which it predicts – its characters move seamlessly from street to street, carrying conversations as easily as they do a cold Miller High Life or a slice of cheese pizza. Like much of Lee’s work, a viewing of Do the Right Thing is bound to provoke debate. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Hell, I’m not even sure Lee can answer that. Which is fair enough, because I’m damn certain he wants you to be the judge. A
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
A fictional story about a cocky jazz musician who spends equal amounts of time playing gigs, juggling his two girlfriends and helping his best friend/manager with his gambling problem, is not a movie plot that interests me. How wrong could I be?
In their first collaboration together, Denzel Washington, as trumpeter Bleek, and Spike Lee (who wrote, directed and co-stars) deliver nothing less than a thrilling, urban jolt of pop cinema. Everything about the movie flies off the screen, from its dazzling musical numbers, to its steamy sexuality, to its humor and, ultimately, to its unexpected dread. When Bleek has a falling out with his band, namely showboater Shadow (Wesley Snipes, never better), we’re privy to some of the best acting Denzel Washington has ever done. Mo’ Better Blues may not sound like something you’d dig, but take my word for it, if you like Spike Lee, you'll like this. YA DIG? SHO NUFF. A-
Jungle Fever (1991)
Joining the ranks of Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus as his most racially charged film, Jungle Fever tells the story of Flipper (Wesley Snipes), a successful, black architect in New York City who begins an affair with an Italian white woman he works with. Despite being urged by his best friend to end it, Flipper continues his affair with Angie (Annabella Sciorra) and even, in one shocking scene, goes public with it.
Now, at its core, Jungle Fever aims to break down the often-taboo subject of interracial dating (Flipper’s black friends are just as angry with him dating a white woman as Angie’s family is with her dating a black man), but there’s really a lot more going on here. The film’s most compelling moments come when Flipper’s crackhead brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), is shown doing anything and everything to achieve his next fix. The Cannes Film Festival created its Best Supporting Actor category specifically to award Samuel L. Jackson’s performance here. “Well deserved,” is putting it lightly. A-
Malcolm X (1992)
I’m not really sure where to begin with Malcolm X. At three hours and 20 minutes long, it wastes not one second documenting the life and death of one of America’s most misunderstood political figures. The film is, essentially, three different movies, with three different leading performances. It first shows Malcolm Little as a Boston thug, wheeling and dealing with the local mob, sleeping with white women, robbing, snorting coke; and morphs into his radicalism once becoming a member of the Nation of Islam; and, finally, as the humble, reserved man whose trip to Mecca changes how he views the world. Each segment has its own look and feel, and each one is tremendously compelling.
As Malcolm X, Denzel Washington gives arguably the best performance of the ‘90s (alongside Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas). When Washington was cast, the black community was in an uproar. Washington was too short, too dark-skinned, too known, they said. Watching the film now, it’s impossible to envision anyone else in the part. What Washington does (and he’s doing quite a lot) is nothing short of revelatory to the acting medium.
Malcolm X is a perfect film, the very finest biopic I’ve ever seen. I remember when The Civil Rights Movement occupied a whopping five days in my seventh grade history class. Four days were dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X got about 45 minutes of class time. I always wanted to know more. I wanted to know who this deeply complicated person was – what drove him to do what he did and believe what he believed. Lee’s film, with much help from Malcolm X’s autobiography, is as much as you could possible need, and them some. A+
Described by Lee as his most personal, autobiographical film, Crooklyn tells the story of a struggling black family in ‘70s Brooklyn. The Carmichael family is mostly viewed through the eyes of Troy, a young girl with four brothers, an authoritative but fair mother, and a hardworking but unsuccessful musician father. As the film progresses, we’re witness to parental arguments, the hardships of the street, and various outside chaos that affects the family.
Now, while I appreciate that this may be the film closest to Lee’s heart, there is a distinct possibility that he is too close to the film. It’s odd, because the film aims to be so personal, yet it is executed as anything but. Maybe the movie’s overall goofy tone helps to take away from what it is trying to accomplish. Or maybe it’s the beyond annoying “tactic” of displaying the film in a different, scrunched aspect ratio when the kids are sent to live with relatives in the country. Either way, too personal or not, Crooklyn is one of Lee’s biggest misses. D+
Clockers, as directed by Lee, produced by Martin Scorsese and written by Lee and Richard Price, the author of the source material, is grisly in its violence, unflinching in its latent racism and dynamic in the performances it captures. Which is pretty much how you’d expect a film by New York’s two most prominent filmmakers to be. The film tells the story of Strike (Mekhi Phifer, in his debut performance), a low-level drug dealer in a Brooklyn housing project who is soon taunted by the police after one of Strike’s accomplices is murdered.
Acting is the highlight here. In addition to a star-making Phifer, Delroy Lindo as Strike’s shifty boss, Isaiah Washington as his clean brother, and Harvey Keitel and John Turturro as the bigoted cops fucking with him, are all superb. At 128 minutes, it must be said that the film feels long, but overly so. All in all, Clockers is exactly what you’d expect from the people involved. B+
Get on the Bus (1996)
Get on the Bus tells the story of a handful of black men traveling by bus from LA to DC to participate in the Million Man March. During their seemingly never-ending journey, the men verbally battle about sex, race, class, slavery – really any and everything they can think of. It’s Murphy’s Law mixed with 12 Angry Men mixed with Do the Right Thing. The first time I saw the film, I was overcome by how well it delivered beyond its simple concept, but it wasn’t until my second, recent viewing that I realized how much I loved it.
I often bitch about how many of the characters in today’s movies are one-dimensional and cookie cutter. How could they do it better? Let Get on the Bus act as a perfect lesson. A-
Girl 6 (1996)
After storming out of an audition with Quentin Tarantino (ingeniously playing a slimy(ier) version of himself), Judy takes a job at a phone sex hotline, quickly forming a client base as the sultry Girl 6.
The film, it must be said, is as tonally perfect as it aims to be. Lee isn’t swinging for the fences here, he’s presenting a slight, simple story about a woman who talks to perverts for a living. It’s a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. Lee regular Theresa Randle is great in the title role, with Peter Berg, Michael Imperioli, Richard Belzer as amusing callers, and Isaiah Washington, Spike Lee and Madonna fleshing out the supporting roles. In no way provocative or engaging, it’s still a modest delight. B
4 Little Girls (1997)
In documenting the murder of four African-American girls during the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Spike Lee presents a searing and ungodly devastating documentary that you cannot take your eyes off of.
Lee spent 10 years crafting his skills as a filmmaker in order to seek the approval of Chris McNair, the father of a one of the deceased girls. McNair, moved by Lee’s extensive research and dedication, gave his consent, and Lee traveled to Birmingham to find out why this tragedy occurred. The result is a balanced (never Lee’s strong suit), objective look into the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Make no mistake: 4 Little Girls is as gut wrenching as it sounds. I’ve never seen Mark Jonathan Harris’s The Long Way Home, but the fact that it beat 4 Little Girls for the Best Documentary Oscar is criminal. A
He Got Game (1998)
The plot is damn near Shakespearian: Jake Shuttlesworth will be released from prison for one week to convince is basketball-prodigy son, Jesus, to go to Big State University. If Jake succeeds, he’ll be released early. Problem is, Jesus wants nothing to do with Jake since Jake killed Jesus’s mother years ago.
Once released, the two battle on and off the court ceaselessly. Jesus battles for redemption and silence, Jake battles for forgiveness and love, resulting in a basketball game that is as thrilling as anything Spike Lee has ever shot. (More on that scene here.)
It must also be noted that He Got Game is Spike Lee’s most technically flawless film. The movie swaps aspect ratios, dips to slow motion, shoots on a different stock photography, breaks the fourth wall – in a way that suits the story seamlessly. I love Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, but I’d dare say that his work as Jake is just as compelling. Ray Allen, too, is remarkable as Jesus. Then a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, Allen possess so much command and drive, I’m amazed he wasn’t encouraged to act more in the off season.
I love everything about He Got Game, it’s raw, real, and heartbreaking. Few films rock me to the point of silence everytime I watch them. He Got Game is most definitely one of them. A
Summer of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam was a huge risk for Spike Lee. It forced him to walk seriously outside of his comfort zone while telling a story so many people were already aware of. The result is a thrilling, wildly entertaining horror show, which is meant as a compliment.
When couples start popping up dead all over New York and its surrounding boroughs from a man claiming to be the Son of Sam (aka the 44. Killer), a close group of Italian-American friends from the Bronx elect to do something about it, while juggling the problems of their everyday lives.
Every primary member of the cast (which contains no black actors, a first for Lee) fits into the misogynistic, disco era of the ‘70s as if they never left. Summer of Son is rough (the word “fuck” is used more than in any other narrative film, ever), hot (the movie was nearly slapped with an NC-17 rating for its many sex scenes), violent (Adrien Brody’s nose was broken during a fight scene), and authentic as all hell. Upon rewatching it recently, I was reminded just how good it really is. A must for Lee fans. A-
The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)
Shot in front of a live audience at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina, this stand-up comedy film featuring Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, is really nothing more than just that.
Although there are highlights (Mac’s riff about his mentally challenged nephew and his bus driver is riotous), the film is overly long and only moderately funny. Bland and avoidable. C-
Want to know a really fast way for your film to lose me? Mention yourself out of context of the film you’re making. To explain: early in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a white television exec who wishes he was black (Michael Rapaport), tells his employee, Pierre (Damon Wayans) that he “doesn’t care what that prick Spike Lee says,” and I can feel my eyes rolling in disapproval. Mentioning yourself within your own movie just irks me, it’s a cheap trick that rarely, if ever, works.
I understand that a movie about a black guy who dresses in blackface to earn television ratings shouldn’t be taken seriously beyond its satirical tone, but Bamboozled simply does not do it for me. It’s grainy digital photography, its ceaseless R&B songs, its exaggerated acting; it all amounts to a serious waste of time. D+
25th Hour (2002)
As the years have passed, many people forget that in the wake of 9/11, Hollywood was in frenzy to ignore America’s greatest tragedy. The Twin Towers were digitally removed from previously-shot footage, violent movies (whether they dealt with terrorism or not) were met with delayed theatrical releases. Basically, Hollywood had no intention of reminding people what they had spent the year trying to forget. Enter Spike Lee, who, through his masterpiece, 25th Hour, not only reminded us, he slammed our latent fear and paranoia right down our throats.
And that’s just one thing that makes this movie so good.
25th Hour tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, delivering the best performance of his career), a high-class drug dealer “enjoying” his final day of freedom before he begins a seven-year sentence. Seamlessly shifting between past and present, we get to know Monty by knowing the people he’s chosen to surround himself with, including his devoted girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), troubled father (Brian Cox) and polar opposite best friends (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper).
I could quite literally highlight any one scene from this movie to help back up my masterpiece classification. Instead, let me modestly note that 25th Hour is the best narrative film Spike Lee has ever made. It is bold, inflammatory, tender and heartbreaking in all those perfect Spike Lee ways. Under no circumstance is this film to go unseen. A+
She Hate Me (2004)
Recently fired from his high-level executive job at a lucrative biotech firm in New York, Jack (Anthony Mackie) is soon convinced by his ex-fiancé, Fatima (Kerry Washington), to start impregnating lesbians who want children. The operation is legit as Fatima (who left Jack after he caught her banging another woman) has her lesbian friends fill out contracts, take STD test – the works. And while She Hate Me is one of Spike Lee’s most critically despised films, I kind of dig it.
Yes, there are extended sequences of animated sperm (with Mackie’s face, no less) searching for the perfect egg, and yes, the (many) sex scenes grow increasingly ridiculous, but I appreciate the film’s overall absurdist tone. Every major player in the star-studded cast is fantastic, including Mackie, Washington and a scene-chewing John Turturro, who plays a mob boss that is the father of one of the women Jack impregnates. The movie turns a bit too heavy in its third act, but much like Girl 6, She Hate Me is a film that never pretends to be more than it is. B
Inside Man (2006)
The most commercially successful film of Spike Lee’s career is this incredibly entertaining heist caper. What starts as a standard bank-robbery-gone-array film quickly turns into something much more clever, with extended sequences that prove Lee’s technical prowess: jumping ahead post-robbery, shooting in Dutch angles with grainy stock, reminding us that he and his crew are a tad bit smarter than we may think.
Inside Man is the type of film that only fully reveals itself once it’s over. Once the credits roll, we sit back and marvel at how intricately we’ve been deceived. The acting, as is always the case in Lee’s best films, is top notch. Denzel as the cop, Clive Owen as the criminal mastermind, Christopher Plummer as the rich devil, and, namely, Jodie Foster as cold fixer – everyone puts in solid work.
I must make mention of a scene that is never discussed, but perfectly summarizes Spike Lee’s thoughts on the white man’s “perspective” on black culture. As the masked bank robbers instruct their hostages to strip down to their underwear and hand over their cell phones, the white bank manager nervously asserts that he didn’t bring his cell phone to work that day. Owen searches through a few cell phones, finds the manager’s name, and calls him. After a brief moment of silence, Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” begins to play from the manager’s phone. How fucking ingenious is that? A-
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore, Spike Lee set out to expose the government inaction following Hurricane Katrina’s attack on New Orleans. And this searing documentary, which stretches well over four hours in length, does just that.
From the onset, Lee makes it clear that he isn’t looking to present an unbiased view of what happened following the storm, he aims to blast the Bush Presidency and others involved who opted to do nothing while thousands of Americans died on the streets of The Big Easy. He interviews residents, newscasters, Hollywood A-listers, political pundits, and anyone who has something to say about this colossal fuckup. But more than simply letting his anger come through, Lee’s film is delicate when it needs to be, and tranquil when appropriate.
When the Levees Broke will take a lot out of you, but by the end, you’ll feel better having watched it. If this film was screened in theaters before it aired on HBO, it could’ve likely won the next five Oscars for Best Documentary. A flawless achievement. A+
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
After the success of Inside Man, Spike Lee was told he would be given the bankroll to make any film he wanted to make, so he opted for this decades-long passion project about an all black infantry division in Italy during WWII. And after a brief, spirited intro, the movie flashes back and stays with the turbulent platoon, which ultimately results in the worst, most misguided film of Lee’s career.
Watching this movie is like watching your drunk friend spin wildly out of control after a long night. It starts off funny (or in the film’s case, well-intentioned) and slowly develops into a train wreck. War battles are aimless and laughably executed, the acting is hyperbolic to the point of delusion, and the violence is so pointlessly grotesque, it’s almost offensive.
Some of Lee’s films have definitely rubbed me the wrong way, but none have forced me to count the minutes until they’re finished. This truly disastrous film is the reason Lee has yet to release a new narrative feature. D-
Passing Strange (2009)
In another one of Lee’s “see it like you’re there,” filmed stage productions, Lee, along with one hell of an impressive camera crew, taped the final Broadway performance of Passing Strange, an all black musical about a confused young man’s self-imposed journey of independence.
In the same vein as Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute, Lee knows that, if you’re going to film a stage play, you have to give the audience something they cannot get in the New York theater. Because of this notion, Lee often implores close ups and swooping crane shots to enhance the story. The film (or should I say, the play) takes a while to hit its stride, but once it warms up, you’re in for a moderately amusing ride. B-
Kobe Doin’ Work (2009)
The concept is simple, the execution is otherworldly. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers granted Spike Lee unprecedented access to the player and his team by letting Lee film Bryant for a game during the 2007-2008 basketball season. And by film, I mean running 30 simultaneous cameras and equipping Bryant with a microphone. Kobe Doin’ Work plays out in near real time, including half time, resulting in an unexpectedly thrilling documentary.
I’m not a fan of professional basketball, and I’m completely unqualified to spin knowledge about Bryant as a player or a man, but I can tell you that, fan or not, Kobe Goin’ Work is evidence of much skill by the subject and its creator. B+
If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise (2010)
Spike Lee’s similarly toned follow-up to When the Levees Broke catches up with many of the initial film’s previous subjects, but ultimately lacks the fury of its predecessor.
Don’t get me wrong, If God Is Willing is definitely a grueling and worthy experience (extended conversations with a modest Brad Pitt, who took it upon himself to help build homes in still underdeveloped areas, are a highlight), but it’s nowhere near as powerful as the original documentary. With all that in mind, if you’re up for it, spend a week watching When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing back to back. The cost of time will ultimately be worth it. B
Do the Right Thing
4 Little Girls
He Got Game
When the Levees Broke
Mo’ Better Blues
Get on the Bus
Summer of Sam
Kobe Doin’ Work
She’s Gotta Have It
She Hate Me
If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise
The Original Kings of Comedy
Just Plain Bad
Miracle at St. Anna
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