Despite some recent weak efforts, I have typically found Spike Lee a director of great craft and style who directs smart films that often challenge you in some way, whether it be your worldview (Do the Right Thing) or your ability to unravel a mystery (Inside Man). With Chi-raq opening in some theatres this week and the buzz promises a return to early Lee form—as well as a John Cusack who may have found his motivation again—it seemed a good time to take a look at his film canon. According to me. Therefore making it objectively true.
For the sake of clarity, I am focusing on the fictional films of Lee so documentaries, like 2006’s When the Levees Broke (starring my good friend and serious Marco Rubio crusher Brendan Loy) were not considered. But you should see that one in particular. Loy is mesmerizing.
Spike Lee Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly)
She’s Gotta Have It- Loud, scattered, made for approximately 18 dollars, and starring Spike Lee himself, it is not necessarily a film that’s easy to love. But if you find the level it is on, it is a great primer on Lee’s abilities, obsessions, and the beginnings of some of signature moves.
Do the Right Thing- Although Lee is often considered a didactic filmmaker, this, his first true classic, demonstrates how deft he can be. A portrait of a neighborhood on the brink of a riot, the film is impressive in how normal it makes it all seem. Lee seeds the film with signs of the humming rage beneath the streets looking to bust forth but much like in real life, it can be easy to ignore. Also noteworthy for how funny it is, Do the Right Thing is the rare film that is both subtle and utterly up front with its messages.
Jungle Fever- This probably does not belong here. Most critics would probably disagree. I just happen to find it irresistible due mostly to a guy named Gator.
See, the thing to understand about Fever is that while it was sold to us as a film about interracial romance, it was actually a covert profile of the scourge of crack cocaine in black neighborhoods during that era in U.S. history. A big part of that profile is Samuel L. Jackson’s Gator who meets his fate in his mother’s apartment during one of the most disturbing dance sequences caught on film.
The romance between Annabelle Sciorra and Wesley Snipes that gives the film its title is…fine. But the reason to watch is to see the ravages of drug addiction so unflinchingly rendered.
Malcom X- Lee’s second classic and arguably one of the best biopics ever made. For a white kid who had heretofore been taught that X was the dark side of the Civil Rights Movement—the opposite number to Martin Luther King Jr’s virtuous nonviolent protestor—it was a wildly eye opening experience, a full throated and rendered portrait of a very complicated historical figure who had too quickly been reduced to the identity of “the one for violence.”
He Got Game- UConn alum and Boston Celtics hero Ray Allen proves that in addition to being good at school and a Hall of Fame basketball player he also can act. Denzel Washington reminds you that he is, to paraphrase someone else, the Greatest Actor of All Time, Period. Elements once derided as over the top, like how far schools go to recruit players, now feel prescient (as Lee himself pointed out in a certain afore-alluded to podcast). I remember people being pretty skeptical about the whole thing before its release but now, years later, it continues to survive as a smart and thoughtful film about father-son relations, the exploitation of college athletes, and the problems of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Bamboozled- Much of the time, satire delivered with a hammer, not a scalpel, grated on my nerves. Here though...I don’t know. I think it is one of Lee’s most underestimated and incorrectly considered films. And there is no denying it is fearless.
25th Hour- My pick for Lee’s third classic. Another entry in his ongoing pondering of the way drugs destroy lives, this time from the perspective of the suppliers, not the users. Empathic in surprising ways, Lee sometimes widens the lens too much—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character’s brief brush with almost committing statutory rape is an odd inclusion, for instance—but it never seems to actually detract.
I have already written elsewhere about my two favorite sequences from the film—the fantasy of escape into small town America as narrated by Brian Cox and Lee’s redux of his own “New Yorkers spew their hate at the camera”—so I’ll just mention a third. In less than 2 minutes, a bruised and bleeding Ed Norton connects with a young African American child riding the bus to school. It’s sweet but it is also incredibly challenging. Norton is a drug dealer who is profited off the addictions of others and, as Lee has made very clear in previous efforts, disproportionally from the black community. The child he is “talking” to (via writing messages on a fogged up window) may have suffered losses because of people like Norton or might have ended up a victim himself if Norton continued to be free. It’s all left unsaid, but the bittersweetness stings.
Inside Man- A cranker of a heist movie that might not feel like the kind of Lee movie you’d expect but a close reading reveals a lot of his signature camera moves and his ongoing love/preoccupation with the melting pot/gladiatorial arena of races, religions, and ethnicities that is New York City.
The performances are great from top to bottom as well. I want to take a moment to specifically note Jodie Foster’s fixer, an amoral wheeler dealer who works harder than anyone in a movie full of hard workers, but does it without letting you see her even sweat a moment. The best example is her head to head with Clive Owens bank robbing mastermind. Owens has gotten under everyone’s skin in the movie and treats Foster without an inch of kindness and yet she walks out of that bank, clicking on her perfect high heels, without blinking at his casual dressing down.
Lee, by his own admission, loves Dog Day Afternoon and there are touches of it throughout the movie. That said, it never plays as homage or derivative. I’m tempted to label this his fourth classic, I like it that much.
Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration
School Daze- I don’t know if it is good, per se, but this musical bristles with an undeniable energy that makes it hard to dismiss. As a second film (after She’s Gotta Have It) it is ridiculously ambitious.
Mo’ Better Blues- Often knocked for being both not as good as Do the Right Thing and the Anti-Semitic coding of the nightclub owners as played by the Turturro brothers. Neither criticism is wrong. The first is easier to hand wave (“Oh, it isn’t as good as a new classic? Well than, it must be worthless.), the second is harder to overlook, especially after how deft Lee proved himself about such things in Do the Right Thing. (It should be noted Lee denied that they were intended to be or were in reality anti-Semitic, for what it’s worth).
So why is it still here? Two reasons: the music and Wesley Snipes. A covert advertisement for jazz music still being produced in the early 90’s, the soundtrack is filled with masters (being ably pantomimed along to by the stars) letting loose. On the performance side, Denzel Washington is good, no surprise there, but Snipes is great, a reminder of how talented he was/might still be.
Crooklyn- After the hot fire of Malcolm X, this semi-autobiographical effort is quiet and small and delivered with a pleasant bit of honey. Zelda Harris as the possible female analogue of kid Spike is wonderful, a child actor that feels like a real child, smart, kind, and fully realized.
Summer of Sam- Lee’s attempt at a Scorsese film falls short of the goal line, but it is an interesting attempt and there is a certain artistry to how much profanity the movie can fit into its running time. Also notable for how well it captures the weird mix of sweaty claustrophobia and endless opportunity a New York City summer.
Red Hook Summer- I still don’t know how I feel about this one. Energetic but wildly disjointed. Compelling and, yet, somehow, boring. Notable for the return of Mookie from Do The Right Thing. I’m putting it here because if I feel this muddled about it, it’s probably at least worth a watch.
A Few to Avoid
Girl 6- Weirdly unsexy for a movie about a phone sex line featuring songs from Prince. There’s something here but Lee doesn’t seem to get a hold of it and star cameos repeatedly derail what little momentum and sense of a world he does put together.
She Hate Me- I…oof. Well Anthony Mackie is charismatic, no doubt that. The rest? Let’s just move on.
Miracle at St. Anna- Not offensive but dull as dishwater. It feels rote and lifeless, terms that I never could apply to Lee’s work until this effort.
Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood Jesus- Utterly inexplicable remakes of the adored South Korean film and the early horror/Blaxploitation movie Ganja and Hess. They registered as bizarre choices before they were released and the final product by no means explained why they needed to exist.