Critic's Picks: Spike Lee's Filmography, Ranked

10:30 AM 8/10/2018

by Jordan Mintzer

A THR film critic ranks the director's uneven but rich and vital body of work, including a brilliant biopic, several provocative docs, a campus musical and his latest, 'BlacKkKlansman.'

From left: 'Do the Right Thing,' 'BlacKkKlansman,' 'Malcolm X'
From left: 'Do the Right Thing,' 'BlacKkKlansman,' 'Malcolm X'
Courtesy of Photofest(2); David Lee/Focus Features

  1. 30
    30

    Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

    2014

    Cinqué Lee

    Lee’s stab (heh heh) at the low-budget horror genre is also an unofficial remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult classic Ganja & Hess. Funded on Kickstarter and released on VOD with little fanfare, it’s a throwaway effort featuring a few easy scares.

  2. 29
    30

    Miracle at St. Anna

    2008

    Courtesy of Photofest

    This WWII epic backfired when the Disney release flopped at the box office and was then mired by litigation between its European financiers. While its story, which follows four African-American “Buffalo” soldiers hiding out in a Tuscan village during the war, was ripe enough for powerful drama, Lee failed to make it happen.

  3. 28
    30

    Red Hook Summer

    2012

    David Lee

    An unwieldy recent entry in the “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, this 135-minute indie feels like it was shot on the fly (apparently in three weeks). Far from the elegance or rigor of Do the Right Thing or Crooklyn, the movie offers up a roaming snapshot of Lee’s favorite New York borough several decades after his early masterpieces.  

  4. 27
    30

    She Hate Me

    2004

    Courtesy of Photofest

    If the sexual politics of this NYC-set sperm donor comedy seemed out of whack more than 10 years ago, in today’s times they would make the film borderline unreleasable. Overlong and unfunny, She Hate Me features an ensemble cast that runs the gamut from Kerry Washington to Woody Harrelson, Q-Tip to Monica Bellucci.

  5. 26
    30

    She's Gotta Have It (TV Series)

    2017-present

    Courtesy of Netflix

    While Lee’s original movie was a watershed moment for both black and American independent film, his attempt to transform it into a TV series has its moments — especially all the jabs at Brooklyn’s gentrification — but can also feel like overkill. Still, Netflix has decided to renew for a second season.

  6. 25
    30

    Jim Brown: All-American

    2002

    Courtesy of Photofest

    A mostly hagiographic portrait of one of the greatest NFL players ever, this HBO doc touches upon some of the more controversial aspects of Brown’s career — including numerous assault charges — as well as how he overcame racism to become a bona fide sex symbol. But it ultimately seems too enamored with its subject to prove objective. 

     

  7. 24
    30

    The Original Kings of Comedy

    2000

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Lee made this fun if forgettable stand-up flick as a showcase for comics Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, whose careers would all be boosted by a film that wound up grossing just over $38 million for Paramount.

  8. 23
    30

    If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise

    2010

    Courtesy of HBO

    This companion piece to the more memorable When the Levees Broke returns to New Orleans five years after Katrina to see how the city rebuilt itself in the wake of the storm, but does so in a meandering way that lacks the first film’s intensity and focus.

  9. 22
    30

    Oldboy

    2013

    Courtesy of Photofest

    This stylish if dreary remake of Park Chan-wook’s classic Korean thriller would deal Lee one of the biggest box-office blows of his career. Starring Josh Brolin as a long-term captive exacting gory revenge on those who destroyed his life, the film features plenty of blood and guts but hardly packs the punch of the original.

  10. 21
    30

    Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown and Off the Wall

    2016

    Courtesy of 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks

    While Bad 25 focused entirely on one album and its lasting effect on pop music, this second Michael Jackson doc covers a broader period stretching from the singer’s stint with The Jackson 5 to his breakthrough 1979 solo album, Off the Wall. Well-made if a bit overloaded with talking heads, it’s still a worthy addition to the canon.   

  11. 20
    30

    Girl 6

    1996

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Lee’s first bona fide box-office flop was an attempt at broader comedy that never quite hit its target. Chronicling the ups and downs of a struggling actress who becomes a phone sex worker to pay the bills, Girl 6 is at best a forgettable time capsule of mid-1990s New York, with a soundtrack by Prince and a cameo by Quentin Tarantino.

     

  12. 19
    30

    Bamboozled

    2000

    A socially apt if cinematically wobbly satire about a young TV exec (Damon Wayans) who puts on a controversial minstrel show, Bamboozled is perhaps most memorable for Lee’s decision to shoot on digital video, which added to the movie’s rough edges.

  13. 18
    30

    Chi-Raq

    2015

    Parrish Lewis

    Though it sounds like a biopic of the former president of France, this impassioned and uneven crime dramedy adapted Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to the deadly streets of modern-day Chicago. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Lee regulars like Wesley Snipes, Angela Basset and Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-raq was the first feature to be produced by Amazon Studios, but failed to leave its mark at the box office.

  14. 17
    30

    Get on the Bus

    1996

    Courtesy of Photofest

    This ensemble piece follows a dozen disparate characters who come clashing together as they try to join Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995. Lacking the punch of Lee’s best work, the film is nonetheless memorable for the way it showed black men from varying backgrounds putting their differences aside for a greater cause.

  15. 16
    30

    School Daze

    1988

    Columbia Pictures/Photofest

    Lee’s second feature turned his experience at Morehouse College into a wacky and racially provocative musical comedy. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito (who would become a regular) and Tisha Campbell, it scored a mild success for Columbia Pictures and could play as a perfect double-bill with Dear White People.

  16. 15
    30

    Bad 25

    2012

    For this electrifying look at one of the King of Pop’s greatest albums, Lee interviewed scores of Michael Jackson’s friends and collaborators while introducing plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. The result is a tribute that shows not only how Bad was a breakthrough for its time, but how much it influenced the pop we love right now.

  17. 14
    30

    He Got Game

    1998

    Buena Vista/Photofest

    The world’s greatest New York Knicks fan finally got to make a basketball movie with this intimate family drama about a convicted felon (Denzel Washington) who tries to convince his son (NBA baller Ray Allen, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks at the time) to help reduce his prison sentence. The film features a knockout soundtrack that mixes transfixing orchestral work by composer Aaron Copland with tracks by Public Enemy.  

  18. 13
    30

    BlacKkKlansman

    2018

    David Lee/Focus Features

    This dark and outrageous crime dramedy tells the uncanny true story of a black detective who tries to infiltrate his local Ku Klux Klan chapter in late-1970s Colorado. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, where Lee earned critical accolades and the Grand Prix, BlacKkKlansman will be one of the filmmaker’s widest theatrical releases in years. 

  19. 12
    30

    Summer of Sam

    1999

    Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

    New York, 1977. A serial killer is on the loose and the Big Apple’s about to be set ablaze. Returning to one of the most tumultuous periods in recent NYC history, Lee focused on two childhood friends from the Bronx — a punk rocker played by Adrien Brody and a philandering husband played by John Leguizamo — whose personal lives get caught up in the greater events that plagued their borough and the city at large.

     

  20. 11
    30

    4 Little Girls

    1997

    Carol Robertson/HBO/Photofest

    Lee’s powerful documentary debut revisited the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that resulted in the deaths of four innocent African-American children and would become a major rallying cry of the civil rights movement. Revealing how the racism that pervaded the Deep South at the time was still prevalent decades later, the film was a critical hit and received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.

     

  21. 10
    30

    Clockers

    1995

    Universal Pictures / Photofest

    Made during the tail end of the city’s crack epidemic, Clockers predates The Wire — one of the series’ regular writers, Richard Price, co-adapted the script from his own novel — by focusing on a housing project stricken by drugs and a police precinct trying to quell the tide. The film is most memorable for its authentic street lingo and strong turns by actors portraying New Yorkers struggling on opposite sides of the law.

  22. 9
    30

    Inside Man

    2006

    Universal/Courtesy of Everett Collection

    Lee made something of a comeback with this kinetic heist flick filled with twists, turns and darker political undertones. Grossing close to $190 million worldwide, it remains his biggest hit to date and one of the best New York crime movies of the 2000s, with terrific turns from Clive Owen, Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster.

  23. 8
    30

    Crooklyn

    1994

    Paramount Pictures/Photofest

    This underseen and extremely touching film had Lee returning to Bed-Stuy to follow a 9-year-old girl whose life is upended by the death of her mother. Both nostalgic and poignant, Crooklyn also features one of the better soul soundtracks in movies, with hits by Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone and The Jackson 5.

  24. 7
    30

    Jungle Fever

    1991

    Columbia Pictures/Photofest

    Lee debunked stereotypes in this intensely played romantic drama about an upper-class black architect from Harlem who has an extramarital affair with an Italian girl from the depths of Bensonhurst. Beyond the terrific Stevie Wonder soundtrack, Jungle Fever gave Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra the chance to shine as star-crossed lovers, with Samuel L. Jackson riveting as a crackhead on an Oedipal death trip.  

  25. 6
    30

    25th Hour

    2002

    Photofest/Buena Vista Pictures

    Arguably the best movie made about, and during, the aftermath of 9/11, this intimate crime drama-cum-character study follows an NYC drug dealer during his final hours before incarceration. Edward Norton gave one of the better performances of his career, while Lee gave the city he loves a moving bandage to help heal its wounds.

     

  26. 5
    30

    When the Levees Broke

    2006

    Photofest

    This four-part HBO documentary, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, provided both a searing critique of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and a moving portrait of New Orleans residents beset by poverty and broken promises. Like Lee’s other non-fiction work — an oft-neglected part of his oeuvre — When the Levees Broke reveals how sharply the director can mold reality into a potent political message. 

  27. 4
    30

    She's Gotta Have It

    1986

    Courtesy Everett Collection

    It all started with this inventive feature debut about a sexually liberated artist (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggling three jealous lovers on the streets, and in the lofts, of downtown Brooklyn. Grossing over $7 million off a budget of only $175,000, the black-and-white docudramedy launched the career of the 29-year-old Lee (appearing as Mars Blackmon) while helping usher in a wave of American independent films.

     

  28. 3
    30

    Malcolm X

    1992

    Warner Bros./Courtesy of Everett Collection

    One of the best biopics of the 1990s, this prodigiously directed period piece showed how well Lee could shape a studio film to echo his views on race, politics and religion. Reuniting Lee with Denzel Washington, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the criminal turned controversial minister and activist, Malcolm X is both epic in scope and intimate in its depiction of a leader fighting to reconcile his public and private lives.    

  29. 2
    30

    Mo' Better Blues

    1990

    Photofest

    Lee’s vastly underrated follow-up to Do the Right Thing is both a love letter to jazz — especially to saxophone great John Coltrane — and a moving portrait of an artist as a young trumpeter. In a performance that would become an early highlight in a magnificent career, Denzel Washington burned up the screen as a musician fighting his demons both on and off the stage, backed by a superb original score from the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

     

  30. 1
    30

    Do the Right Thing

    1989

    Everett Collection

    Nearly 30 years since its initial release, this socio-political cinematic bombshell remains as relevant as ever. Set during one long and explosive summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Lee’s fiery portrayal of a neighborhood ripped apart by mounting racial tensions is at once hilarious and ruthless, revealing what happens when ordinary African-Americans decide to stand up and "fight the powers that be."

comments powered by Disqus