Note: This feature originally ran in 2017. His next feature, Da 5 Bloods, premieres Friday, June 12th on Netflix.
Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting of filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
Spike Lee probably doesn’t need your praise or condemnation. He’s been fighting to make the art that he wants to make for the last 30 years. Recently, he’s used Greek tragedy and sex strikes as a means of deconstructing the dire state of gun violence in Chicago (Chi-Raq). Who has the nerve to make a film like that? Then again, who would want to draw parallels between modern “urban” television and minstrelsy? Who slams the lucrative artifice of college basketball while reveling in its Americana? Who else but Lee could make bona fide masterpieces out of hot-headed racial tension, the dangerous life of Malcolm X, and the misery of New York right after 9/11?
Lee. And Lee’s always gonna have it, his way, for mostly better, and occasionally worse. He doesn’t need us to talk about him, but his films have a power to them that demands discourse and constant conversations. That’s why it’s always worth discussing 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks and what the Bed-Stuy filmmaker is all about. No Knicks jokes today. No courting controversy, either. We’re all for just appreciating dolly glides and Denzel and dynamite filmmaking here.
With his latest drama Da 5 Bloods about to drop on Netflix, we’re looking back at five of the most definitive films in Lee’s filmography. In Five Films aims to remember, evaluate, and reconsider five distinct and key works (not always the best) in the career of a prolific filmmaker. And at 60-plus diverse directorial credits, Spike Lee’s got a whole lot of game.
Senior Staff Writer
Spike the Beginner
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Here he is, Mr. Shelton Jackson Lee with his first foray into filmmaking, and it’s the germ, the seed of Spike. She’s Gotta Have It’s logline was nothing too exciting: a young Brooklynite by the name of Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) slinks back and forth between three distinct suitors. But Nola is an empowered, indecisive, developed character trying to figure out what she wants in life. Lee’s film is crazy, sexy, assuredly stylish, and features the infamous “Please baby please baby baby please!” The film was hot, intelligent, and wildly funny.
Now travel back in time to 1986. The Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s were not far removed, and the most well-known black films of the ‘80s up to that point were relegated to tales of drugs and pimps and street crime and dancing and other dubious stereotypes. “Hood” caricatures. Blacks were crooks in cop films like Paul Newman’s Fort Apache, The Bronx, or Sean Penn’s Bad Boys, or worse, lined up to be shot at by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in their movies.
Suddenly, Lee comes onto the scene with young, witty, expressive African American characters. This was a revelation, and it makes the film so delicious and forever worth re-watching. Lee also had a total grasp of his form right out of the gate. His aesthetics and groovy audio tendencies were there from the start. Ernest Dickerson’s funky, pointed photography elevated the film (Lee would test many a great lenser), and Bill Lee’s (Spike’s dad!) casually cool jazz score is divine. People forget, Lee’s never been a deliberate shock jock provocateur, per se. He’s no troll. His subject matter jolts, perhaps, because of his foresight, his inventive style, and his intelligence and daring to address big ideas in different ways. Is there a nice way to say Lee intimidates people?
She’s Gotta Have It lasts as not just one of the most confident directorial debuts in modern movies, but as a laugh-out-loud landmark of American independent cinema from the 1980s. Lee made it clear that he was a young talent, a voice that deserved audiences’ attention.
Spike the Satirist
School Daze (1988)
Lee’s riff on territorial theatrics in higher education is still rousing. School Daze saw Lee with a little more money after breaking out in 1986, showing off his skills in music and comedy while making considered jabs at race relations and textbook egos. Inspired by his experiences with predominantly black universities like Morehouse and Clark, Lee found satire through the telling of turf wars between sororities and fraternities. It’s kind of brilliant and forever relevant.
Frats take themselves so seriously, over sports, over hazing, over perceived reputations of parties and superiority complexes. In School Daze, Lee very quickly showed his distrust of the system and ability to question it through exaggerated feats of fancy. Spike played with elements from musical and comedy genres to smash some pies in the faces of big schools, and still the film’s absolutely never dishonest.
Whereas John Singleton’s Higher Learning addressed similar tensions in colleges in deadly serious fashion, Lee took school pride and adolescent angst to task in a brighter, poppier way. The effect is amazing, and Lee presents youth as it’s enshrouded in ego and hopeful for the future. Lee’s golden-era, Capraesque cry is filmmaking at its rawest and most honest. Lee literally, poetically screams at his viewers to “wake up” in the end.
Daze was a precursor to and primer on Lee’s sillier impulses. You can see a lot of School Daze in the likes of Bamboozled, Chi-Raq, Freak, Crooklyn, and even The Original Kings of Comedy! Remember, he’s funnier than hell sometimes, but never without purpose.
Spike the Great American Filmmaker
Malcolm X (1992)
This is Lee the grand master, the ambitious Cecil B. DeMille type. With Malcolm X, Spike Lee solidified himself as one of the great American directors.
After the runaway success of Do the Right Thing, Lee had a certain amount of cachet, but not enough for total control. Marvin Worth had the rights to X and Alex Haley’s famed autobiography for years and years, with marquee names like Sidney Lumet and Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor and Oliver Stone attached, or at least interested, at various points. Naturally, studios were always scared senseless by the thought of funding the filmed story of a man who uplifted the rights of black Americans while denouncing much of white America. Eventually, Warner took the film and hired Norman Jewison of In the Heat of the Night to direct the life story of X. Long story short, that didn’t work out. Lee was eventually hired, and took over the production. He re-wrote an existing script, asked for a ton of money (had to get support from friends and independent studios, too), and made an all-access appreciation for Malcolm X, his way.
As for the finished project, well, effusive praise is only appropriate for Malcolm X. Sure, audiences and viewers wither at the sight of a 202-minute film about a trailblazing black orator and authority, but how often (especially in the modern era of “biopics as Oscar bait”) does a biographical feature get to be this full-blooded and succeed in such grand fashion? Malcolm X is all the hyperbole: grand, ambitious, involving, profound, eye-opening, beautiful, epic, unpretentious, important, and even entertaining. Thank god for that last thing. 202 minutes and Lee makes them all count!
Cleopatra certainly wasn’t this captivating, but then Cleopatra didn’t have Al Sharpton or Nelson Mandela cameos. Cleopatra didn’t have Denzel Washington fully immersing himself in the phoenix-like life of a social magnate, crafting a total arc that starts with zoot suits and crime and then transforms into a larger-than-life fable of social bravery. And Cleopatra certainly didn’t have moments of immeasurable power like Ossie Davis’s culminating narration about X the “Black Prince,” Terence Blanchard’s regal elegy playing over Rodney King footage, or X’s death march set to the bittersweet “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Countless actors, sets, locations, eras, and styles, all in the service of a film as complete as the life it sets out to depict. To this day, Malcolm X is one of Lee’s biggest and best joints.
Lee showed his ambition and scope with Malcolm X and his willingness to deeply entrench himself in the lives and social impact of “afro Americans,” as the film so proudly proclaims. This is Lee taking a studio job and turning it into a passion project, even a call for peace, as he was bound to do. This is Lee at his best and most idealistic, which is to say, with a twinge of sadness, but hopeful nonetheless. This Spike showed up later in works like 25th Hour and Miracle at St. Anna to wildly varying degrees.
Spike the Documentarian
4 Little Girls (1997)
Say hello to Spike the documentarian and modern historian. 4 Little Girls was Lee’s first doc, and it’s an unbelievable work on civil rights in the 1960s that is made up of empathy, outrage, and ultimately heartbreak. This would become a starting point for Spike’s formal tendencies and interests in documentary. Lee, as a documentarian, lacked the visual recreation and melodrama of Morris, or the dry subterfuge of Herzog, but he made a name for himself as a maker of docs in 1997 telling the tale of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with archival recreations and utter focus. Lee wanted to give voices back to four people who were hushed too soon, and he did it with care.
The 1963 Birmingham bombing of a Baptist church wound up taking the lives of four children: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The bombing was a despicable act perpetrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and it lingers in American history as a racist act of senseless cowardice. Yet Lee manages to look back through the dust and reignite the pure outrage and pain of the event, reminding viewers that these kids, like all black lives, mattered and should never be forgotten.
Lee’s skills as a documentary filmmaker were developed quickly, probably in no small thanks to years of feature-making that gave him the confidence to appropriately provoke and dramatize real events. That’s how he’s made all his docs, even when done quickly or with little to no expense: Lee approaches the subject matter as himself first and then constructs a basic but meaningful narrative around the subject.
4 Little Girls was a landmark doc that netted Lee a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. Lee’s other doc projects would include Bad 25, Jim Brown: All American, and his opus on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke.
Spike the Hired Gun
25th Hour (2002)
Lee’s gotta get paid sometimes. He’s always been a proactive filmmaker who doesn’t make movies unless he has a deeply vested interest in the subject matter. Even the Mars Blackmon Air Jordan commercials, or the Taco Bell ads he did in the ‘90s, have his full attention and care. You ever see Lee advertise Levi jeans with crotch folds by doing the running of the bulls in Pamplona?
The point is, even when Lee comes to a project not devised or written by him, he will immerse himself in the work and come up with fascinating, fearlessly filmic ways of doing things.
Tobey Maguire, emo-Spider-Man himself, bought the rights to David Benioff’s 2001 debut novel, 25th Hour, with the intent to star in and produce the film. Lee came to the property and enhanced Benioff’s work to incorporate elements of 9/11 and the mood in New York City after the towers fell, and it carries a sense of melancholy and regret throughout the film that’s landed the project on countless decade-best lists.
Lee amped up the story with his signature verve and anger, and the film wasn’t just about a drug dealer pissed off that he’s going to jail, but a man meditating to the thought of himself, where he is in his life, and what he’s done. The film becomes about a man and, in essence, a city atoning for and learning from its mistakes, and through one man’s hatred for everything in his town he realizes he may just hate himself. But there’s always another chance to rebuild, to learn, to start over. It’s one of Lee’s most powerful statements, and 25th Hour is considered one of the pre-eminent films about September 11th.
And this was a commercial studio job for pretty, popular actors at Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. Lee made other commercial projects like Oldboy (ouch) and Inside Man (fun fun fun), but 25th Hour, plus Malcolm X, show that if you pay, Spike will play.