- REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Spike Lee has spent the last three decades making some of the most important movies in the modern era of filmmaking.
From the socially conscious “Do The Right Thing” to the powerful “Malcolm X,” Lee has used the medium to shed light on some of the most important (and often ignored) issues of our times.
The two-time Oscar nominee’s latest project is bringing one of his classics to streaming. He’s made his 1986 indie hit “She’s Gotta Have It” into a series for Netflix (starting November 23).
To celebrate his work, here we highlight 14 essential Spike Lee movies:
1. “4 Little Girls” (1997)
Lee’s Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary delves into one of the most horrific moments during the Civil Rights Movement: the murder of four African-American girls when the Baptist church they were in was bombed.
2. “25th Hour” (2002)
Based on the David Benioff novel, Lee sets the story of the last 24 hours of a New York drug dealer (Edward Norton) before he goes to prison. It looks at race, friendship, family, and post 9/11 New York City.
3. “Bamboozled” (2000)
- New Line Cinema
Perhaps Lee’s most underappreciated work – shot on mini DV cameras and featuring an ensemble cast that includes Damon Wayans, tap dance legend Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Mos Def, and Michael Rappaport – the director explores the hypocrisy in the entertainment business as we follow an African-American TV writer (Wayans) who in frustration pitches a minstrel show where black people put on black face. The show becomes a sensation.
4. “Crooklyn” (1994)
Lee takes many aspects from his childhood to tell this story of a Brooklyn family in the early 1970s. Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard as the parents give incredible performances.
5. “Do the Right Thing” (1989)
It’s the movie that made Lee famous. The director’s examination of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn on one of the hottest days of the year came at a time when race and police relations with the public were at a boiling point in not just New York City but across the country.
6. “He Got Game” (1998)
Lee uses his love for basketball to weave a complex story about a Coney Island high school star (played by pro player Ray Allen) who is trying to decide if he’s going to go straight to the pros or to college. Things get more complicated when his father (Denzel Washington) is deliberately released from prison to convince his son to go to a specific school.
7. “Jungle Fever” (1991)
Never one to be shy about looking at taboos, Lee did just that with this movie that examined an interracial relationship at a time when that was never explored on movies or TV. Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play the couple, who are in a heated affair despite the objections of their friends. The movie also features Samuel L. Jackson in a powerful role as Snipes’ drug addict brother.
8. “Malcolm X” (1992)
- Warner Bros.
Lee’s most ambitious undertaking is this epic biopic on the 1960s activist. Starring Denzel Washington in one of his best performances, we follow Malcolm from his days as a hustler and two-bit criminal named “Red” to converting to the Nation of Islam and becoming a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement before being assassinated.
9. “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall” (2016)
- Sony Records
Having done multiple projects on Michael Jackson, Lee was the perfect person to look at the moment when Jackson truly became the King of Pop. This documentary chronicles Jackson growing out of his role as leader of The Jackson 5 and preparing for his first solo album.
10. “The Original Kings of Comedy” (2000)
You would think doing a stand-up special would be beneath someone like Lee, but what he captures are some very funny sets from some of the best African-American comics of that time – Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac. The Bernie Mac set is still the one that cracks me up to this day.
11. “Red Hook Summer” (2012)
- Variance Films
One of Lee’s better movies in recent years, he shot this story of a 13-year-old Atlanta boy’s summer vacation in Brooklyn with his grandfather on the super-cheap. It paid off, as it focused more on the powerful story and great performance by Clarke Peters.
12. “School Daze” (1988)
- Columbia Pictures
Delving into the world of pledging a fraternity at a historically black college, Lee looks at how far people will go to get accepted, and how women are used to simply appease those with perceived power. The movie ends with Laurence Fishbourne screaming “WAKE UP!”
13. “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)
- Island Pictures
Lee’s second feature film would launch not just his career as a director, but his Mars Blackmon character that would later be immortalized in Michael Jordan Nike commercials. This dramedy about a woman and her three lovers is a landmark movie in black cinema.
14. “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006)
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is showcased in Lee’s two-part HBO documentary that’s a powerful exploration of how the people of New Orleans rebounded from one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory.