Trailblazing, controversial and an essential filmmaking voice, Spike Lee is mainly known as an “issue” filmmaker, confronting race relations in America, implicating each audience member in problems we’re most likely too uncomfortable (or worse) to face head on.
That description, of course, diminishes Lee’s influence over the technical and narrative language of filmmaking during the last four decades of his versatile career. Certain shots, music choices and editing techniques so entrenched within Lee’s style have become such pop culture staples, someone with only a passing knowledge of his work could even identify his style.
Now that Lee is enjoying a well-deserved comeback with BlacKkKlansman’s box-office success, we thought it might be time to rank his films from worst to best. To make things fair, only fictional theatrical releases are in this list. We’re sorry to disappoint fans of The Original Kings of Comedy and 4 Little Girls (Is this the last time you’ll see those two vastly different titles mentioned within the same sentence?)
Here are Spike Lee’s 22 fiction films, from worst to best.
Lee’s films are known to be cluttered and a bit overindulgent, even when it comes to some of his best work. But the woefully misguided She Hate Me is in a whole category of its own. The premise of a hunky young black man (Anthony Mackie) impregnating a series of conveniently super hot gay women by having earth-shattering sex that results in screaming orgasms each time is surprisingly regressive considering Lee’s past work. Though Mackie’s character resorts to this new “line of work” after losing his lucrative financial job, Lee examines the ways black bodies are commodified even in supposed positions of power, Lee and co-writer Michael Genet’s muddled plot can’t seem to settle on satire or parody or anything in between. Lee, who formed a progressive take on female sexuality with debut She’s Gotta Have It, obviously doesn’t believe that what all gay women actually crave is a good dickin’, but it’s hard to gauge what he was going for either. Add to this a flurry of tangents about financial fraud and mafia intrigue, and you get an eventually disappointing mess.
During his TV review, Roger Ebert called Michael Bay’s craptastic Pearl Harbor the kind of shamelessly cheesy World War II melodrama that Mad Magazine used to lampoon. The same goes for Miracle at St. Anna, an almost laughably over-the-top account of a regiment of African-American World War II soldiers protecting an Italian village. As a main character states at the beginning of the film, black soldiers were in the war too, and their stories need to be told—though they don’t need to be told through the lens of an annoyingly old fashioned melodrama. A considerable chunk of the film doesn’t even reference the cultural troubles African-American soldiers went through, save for a flashback sequence that almost saves the film, instead relying on cheap emotional manipulation like a maudlin love triangle and a bevy of cardboard cutout characters.
Crowdsourced and rent to befuddling bits by way too many ideas spurned by way too much ambition, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an undersung oddity pit by atonal decisions and inspired instinct. There’s little better way to describe Spike Lee’s remake of Bill Gunn’s (who’s also credited on this film’s script) Ganja & Hess than in contradictions—such is the confused language it speaks, that Lee often speaks, to similarly jarring ends, but rarely has it made so little sense. A pulpy vampire tale about a fabulously wealthy anthropologist (Stephen Tyrone Williams) whose encounter with an ancient African blade renders him immortal (and addicted to blood), the film grows sanguine with philosophical racial maundering about class and the colonialism of religion and sexuality and academia and superstition, treating its premise as mythologically as it does absurdly. It’s indebted to Gunn’s original but blisteringly Lee’s own, a piecemeal art film reportedly filmed in 16 days, which is both to its credit and an easy way to blame why it kinda half-sucks. Fascinating, stifling and sometimes excruciatingly boring, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus nonetheless thrives in that push-and-pull: A scene in which our protagonists first make love, briefly, scored to a Milton Nascimento song replete with a children’s choir, bears both the innocence of physical love and the lasciviousness of something too private to watch. Best to just accept it for what it is than struggle to explain what it isn’t. —Dom Sinacola
There’s a message in this dramedy (written by Suzan-Lori Parks) about how little opportunities struggling actresses have if they’re not willing to be overtly sexualized by the male-controlled industry, but it gets bogged down in a confusingly unrealistic take on phone sex and an fantasy scenes that borderlines on cheap sketch comedy. Girl 6 (Theresa Randle’s poignant performance is perhaps the sole winning point) is an actress who rebels against such sexualization and ironically ends up working a phone sex line in order to make ends meet. Just like with any sex work, it’s possible for some women who do phone sex to get some fun out of it, but the film’s fetishization of such pleasure Girl 6 gets out of it misses the mark completely, treating the character as a man’s fantasy of how a phone sex operator could be sexually aroused by her job. The terribly unfunny and outdated fantasy sequences, one painfully satirizing The Jeffersons, don’t help either.
For most of its runtime, Red Hook Summer feels like Lee going back to his indie roots, capturing the carefree experience of New York youth the way he did with Crooklyn. The story is fairly run-off-the-mill slice-of-life stuff,, the acting is stiff, the scenes go on for longer than they should, but Lee at least attempts to encapsulate yet another slice of life tale of his beloved borough, this time through a rebellious young man (Jules Brown) trying to connect with his strict priest grandfather (Clarke Peters). Lee unwisely crams a twist into the third act, one so explosive that it should have been developed during the first two acts. After this reveal, the film revs into a raging melodramatic gear and never recovers.
Give the nearly shot-by-shot remake of Oldboy this much credit: It’s even more batshit than its predecessor. While Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was out there with its premise and shocking twist, it was also a genuine tragedy that slyly incorporated hardcore genre elements. With his remake, Lee goes full camp, borderlining on schlock, serving up scenery-obliterating bad guy performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, reimaginings of the original’s most ferocious sequences that pump everything to 11 and a deliciously tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the infamous third act twist. When it comes to choosing between the two versions, always go with the Korean original, but if you’re in for a uniquely sweaty bit of Lee at his most delirious, this take should satisfy.
Though it brims with life—literally, with the juices and jubilation of ecstatic babymaking—in the face of so much death, rarely has a Lee joint seemed so willfully tone-deaf to the ouroboros-like complexities of the issues he’s addressing than in the go-for-broke Chi-raq. A retelling, replete with verse, of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the women of far-West- and far-South-Side Chicago withhold sex from their gang-affiliated men to curb the City’s plague of gun violence, the film nails one melodramatic beat after another, from Jennifer Hudson’s heartbreaking portrayal of a mom in mourning, her grief igniting a revolution, to Teyonah Parris as an enthralling presence, bringing the United States’ military industrial complex to its knees by the time she’s had her couplet-loaded way. Still, it all amounts to little, as Lee never has much incisive cultural or sociopolitical commentary to offer, falling backwards into misogyny and shallow racial commentary when attempting to explain what’s going on in the streets of Chicago, a City that in turn didn’t take too kindly to the film. It could be because it practically indicts black men without realistically holding systemic racist institutions to account (the scene with an Army general played for weird sex-shaming laughs), or because casting John Cusack as Fr. Mike Corridan makes no sense, or because R. Kelly is on the soundtrack to a movie about sexual politics with a song called “Put the Guns Down”: Chi-raq points feverishly to Chicago, singing about and signalling the metropolis’s importance, but ends up having nothing much to say. —Dom Sinacola
Mo’ Better Blues is a prime example of Lee’s problem with cramming too many ideas into one movie, diluting them all. Bleek (Denzel Washington) is a jazz club trumpeter whose music is his religion, but how much longer can he put off the pleasures of his personal life in pursuit of musical perfection, especially as he sees his band partner (Wesley Snipes) having loose fun with his craft while capturing a different but also legitimate soul for jazz? Simple enough premise to delve into, yet Lee adds a fairly predictable love triangle and an overwrought sub-plot about Bleek’s manager (Spike Lee) owing money to gangsters. The jazz performance sequences are a delight, and the film captures a smooth tone that matches the music well, but it’s too overcrowded for its simple message. The identical bookending scenes of the film pose the question: How much should an artist sacrifice for their work?
Many may forget how masterful Lee can be when it comes to constructing prime entertainment with a solid structure and intense build-up. Aside from some commentary on post-9/11 New York, Inside Man endeavors to be little more than an ultimately engaging heist movie. Clive Owen and Denzel Washington share some nice chemistry as the sleek bank robber with an ingenious secret plan (Owen) and the world-weary cop (Washington) tasked to stop him, while the film’s non-linear structure methodically leads us to its clever climactic twist. Produced by Brian Grazer, this big budget genre exploit feels like a gun-for-hire job for Lee, but it’s nonetheless a fun cinematic lark with signs of serious underpinnings.
For his second feature, Lee focuses on the cultural and political rifts—class and lightness of skin color, for example—between African-American youth. Taking place in historically black Mission College, School Daze is an exuberant yet grounded exploration of how college-educated and non-college-educated African-American youth can turn against one another, only to hopefully find some common ground. The film carries some passionate performances from Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito as two rivals at the university, but Lee’s ending is too on the nose and over the top. Perhaps we should chalk that up to Lee still not having brushed off his film school daze.
Shot on MiniDV, Bamboozled is a blue-and-orange, grain-infused product of turn-of-the-Millennium consumer culture, today looking simultaneously dated and a sign of what must have been the cutting edge at the time. So it goes with the television network employing black executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans, lifting a ludicrously affected “white” accent to transcendent heights) who, in order to get fired Producers-style and go on to make the TV shows he really wants to make, pitches a minstrel show 2.0 to his “streetwise” white boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport, who’s maybe playing a version of Quentin Tarantino, maybe just playing himself). Dunwitty’s psyched on the project, assuming that its offensiveness—putting black people in black face on prime time TV—will be exactly the kind of subversive energy the network needs, not, as Delacroix’s assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) can’t quite get around to accepting, the retrograde disaster Delacroix first intended it to be. Their show, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, is of course a major hit, encouraging America to once again feel OK with black face and the n-word. Steeped in meta-textual commentary—casting both Wayans and Tommy Davidson of In Living Color, which one gets the impression Lee would call a modern-day minstrel show; staging long acts of the actual show, forcing the audience to sit with Mantan long past it serving any plot-based purpose—Bamboozled overcomes some wavering character elements and inconsistent pacing by simply bursting with vitality, with ideas, with a generous spirit of anger and love and pain. —Dom Sinacola
Lee has a unique ability to take different plotlines with different themes and tones and somehow insert them into the same movie, where they miraculously not only gel, but end up accentuating one another. When doing a period piece for BlacKkKlansman, he puts a mirror up to our current race relations. 25th Hour, about a drug dealer’s last day of freedom before he goes to jail, becomes a post-9/11 contemplation on unity against evil. He Got Game is essentially a satire of the way black athletes are exploited in college basketball, but it hides a powerful drama about a family torn apart through tragedy, and how compassion and forgiveness can come from even the most painful places. Denzel Washington is aces as always in the role of a once-abusive, alcoholic father seeking forgiveness from his basketball prodigy son (Ray Allen) for a horrific sin he committed. Yet that doesn’t diminish then-NBA-star Allen’s natural charisma in his first foray into acting. (And, as with many of Lee’s ’90s efforts, He Got Game is about 20 minutes too long.)
Jungle Fever is an honest exploration of how much society still needs to evolve regarding interracial relationships, accompanied by a scornful condemnation of the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged African-American communities throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It’s also a solid Douglas Sirk-ian domestic melodrama about a married man (Wesley Snipes) having an affair with his secretary (Annabella Sciorra) and how that affects everyone involved. The conflict that both people have to overcome feels insurmountable even without everyone around them giving the couple shit about the racial element. Lee doesn’t hold back from examining the prejudice from both sides and comes to a truthful conclusion that’s part depressing and part hopeful. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson as Snipes’ crackhead brother was so good in the part, that not only does his narrative steal the show, but Cannes made up an entire supporting actor category just to be able to give him an award.
Crooklyn won’t go down in Lee’s filmography as a thematically important achievement, but it still might be his most heartwarming work to date. This makes sense, since it’s pretty much an autobiographical film about growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, communicated through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses. Sure, he takes on some serious issues, like the drug use that permeated his neighborhood, but it’s mostly a love letter to his youth, giving back to the borough that defined him as an artist and a person. Zelda Harris is downright adorable as Troy, a precocious nine-year-old firecracker in 1973 who’s beginning to truly discover her home and how it connects to her family, which is made up of her four siblings, her teacher mother (Alfre Woodard) and her jazz musician father (Delroy Lindo). The exuberant color scheme makes Brooklyn look like a child’s dream, full of hidden wonders, placing the audience squarely in Troy’s point-of-view. Crooklyn also holds the distinction of employing the most surreal application of Lee’s trademark “floating” tracking shot.
Summer of Sam technically isn’t about the Son of Sam killer, who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977 with his weapon of choice, a 44-caliber handgun— it’s a return for Lee to probing how much irreversible damage unfounded paranoia and unchecked prejudice can inflict on neighborhoods, friendships and relationships. In a way, Summer of Sam operates as a mini-Do The Right Thing retread, focusing less overtly on race and more on how society marginalizes people who, for whatever reason, are different. When Richie (Adrian Brody) returns to his conservative Italian neighborhood dressing and acting like a proud member of a British punk band, the immediate reaction from his old friends is that he’s a freak, so he must be responsible for the murders that plague the city. Lee treating Son of Sam’s exploits as a sub-plot—Summer of Sam may feel a bit bloated and overlong, actually, with too many characters and sub-plots—actually works in heightening the visceral shock of the film’s killings: The death scenes lack the usual suspense of a standard serial killer flick, so that when the killer casually approaches his victims and empties his gun, the violence begins suddenly and ends suddenly, allowing us to contemplate the matter-of-factness of it, in contrast to more strangely macabre sequences, like when the killer has a conversation with a dog.
Reggie Rock Bythewood’s screenplay uses the premise of a group of men—more placeholders for the many differing experiences of the African-American male than fully fleshed out characters—from different generations and backgrounds traveling cross-country to participate in the Million Man March as a way to contextualize and question what it meant to be black in the ’90s. Through both their rifts and commonalities, Get on the Bus tackles the many controversies that surrounded the march: the exclusion of black women, homophobia in the black community, even a harsh but necessary discussion of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. Lee gives life to these characters via a docudrama approach, sitting the audience as a passenger on the bus (as clichéd as that may sound). A chilling final shot leaves no doubt that there’s still so much work to be done, still so many marches to be had.
An explosively frank feature debut that immediately announced Lee’s brave, fresh new voice in American cinema, She’s Gotta Have It, shot like a documentary, is a levelheaded exploration of a young black woman named Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) trying to decide between her three male lovers, while also flirting with her apparent bisexuality, in order to, first and foremost, figure out what makes her happy. What’s refreshing about the film is that Lee always brings up the possibility that “none of the above” is a perfectly viable answer for both Nola and for single women—a game changer in 1986. The DIY indie grainy black-and-white cinematography boosts the film’s in-your-face realism.
With the successes of Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, so-called “hood movies” flourished in the early ’90s. For Clockers, Lee worked from an oppressively bleak angle to, in some sense, rebut those films that glamorized the violence of its subgenre, showing the true devastating consequences from frame one, plastering pictures of actual gang-related murder scenes across its opening credits. Lee tells the story of Strike (Mekhi Phifer), a drug dealer struggling to get out of his nightmare existence, as not much more than a tale of raw and desperate survival. The film’s depressing and muted color scheme, accompanied by claustrophobic cinematography (by Malik Hassan Sayeed, who’d go on to shoot Lee’s Girl 6 and He Got Game), perfectly compliments the necessarily dreary narrative.
BlacKkKlansman begins, in vintage Spike fashion, with a big Oliver Stone-esque set piece featuring a racist “scholar” named Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard (Alec Baldwin) delivering a demented, bigoted speech straight to the camera, but then, for a brief while, the movie settles down to tell its real-life story. In 1970s Colorado, a man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) joins the police department and, after dealing with discrimination within the force itself, decides to go undercover and take down the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, talking to its members on the phone while using his white, Jewish partner Flip (Adam Driver) to serve as his in-person representative. The two slowly infiltrate the Colorado KKK and end up corresponding with the KKK’s grand wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who becomes so infatuated with Ron that he comes to Colorado to meet him. Meanwhile, Ron falls for a local radical (Laura Herrier) and attempts to figure out whether he can square the circle of being a good police office and a conscientious, vigilant black man.
This is a Spike Lee movie, so the straightforward story you might have gotten from Get Out’s Jordan Peele—who was originally going to make this film as his follow up but instead produces here—keeps taking all sorts of detours, mostly with the intent of reminding you that there’s a direct line between the shithead Klansmen of this time period and the shitheads in Charlottesville…and the White House itself. Lee shook himself out of his brief academic torpor with 2015’s Chi-Raq, a wildly unfocused but deeply passionate movie, and he evolves further here, his outrage and sadness seeping out of every frame. It can be a little on the nose sometimes—one discussion of racism in the Oval Office is so overt you half expect the word “TRUMP” to just start flashing on the screen—but Spike Lee is at his best when he’s on the nose. Lee is too urgent, too furious, to have time to lull you in with subtlety and nuance: When the house is on fire, you don’t worry about what kind of hoses you have, you just spray that shit with everything you have. Lee is shaking with rage at what he sees in the world right now, and for crissakes, he should be. His excesses don’t just seem powerful; they’re necessary. You can sort out all the particulars later: The house is on fire right now. —Will Leitch
25th Hour, about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) who tries to tie up loose ends with his family, friends and girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) the night before he goes to prison, was already well into pre-production when 9/11 happened. So Lee addressed the elephant in the room head on, inserting a beautiful and respectful tribute to New York’s resilience that splendidly enriched writer David Benioff’s story about personal strength and self-awareness as a conduit to redemption. Frequent Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s mournful scores have a way of bringing out the feels as they play over real life tragedy, as evidenced by the endings of Bamboozled and BlacKkKlansman, but his opening credits work is even more exceptional here. Surrounded by a horde of airtight performances (also including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox and Anna Paquin), 25th Hour is one of the greatest films of the ’00s.
After Malcolm X, the behemoth of a biography about the legendary human rights activist, was released and rightfully became an immediate cultural cornerstone, Lee said that during production, he and Denzel Washington were constantly reminded by Black people, “Don’t mess it up!” The pressure was admittedly high for Lee and Washington to bring a respectful but honest depiction of Malcolm’s tumultuous, inspiring life to the screen, and the final product was a technical, narrative and thematic triumph. As usual, Lee finds a way to tie his period piece to contemporary racial tragedy, as his film opens with the footage of the Rodney King beating. He begins on a note of anger, yet ends on a celebration of the power of unity, bringing both sides of Malcolm X’s philosophy together. In every frame, Washington gives a career-best performance, one seemingly of many.
Do The Right Thing, Lee’s brutally direct masterpiece about America’s fraught race relations, compacted within a block of Bed-Stuy during the hottest day of a 1989 summer, might be hypnotically entrenched in late ’80s aesthetic and style, but its tragic breakdown of racial conflict will always be timeless. Like a master manipulator of tone and tension, Lee meticulously turns up the heat until the inevitable explosion tears apart the society with which Lee’s spent the course of the movie making us fall in love. Tragedy expands tenfold. Powered by amazing performances from a great ensemble cast—from established heavy hitters like Ossie Davis, Danny Aeillo and Ruby Dee, to then-newcomers like Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson and John Turturro—and as Ernest Dickerson’s scorching cinematography, Do The Right Thing is one of those rare achievements that manages to be equal parts hilarious and devastating. It’s certainly one of a handful of quintessential American films.