Spike Lee is one of the most prolific and talented film writers, directors and producers of the current age. He has directed more than 27 films over the last 35 years, produced on another 20, and that doesn’t even touch on his work in short film, television and documentaries.
Lee is not afraid to take on difficult topics such as race relations, urban crime, political tragedy, and the role of the media in contemporary life, but all with a sharp comic edge. Lee is all about showing the real world and getting the audience to ask questions about the status quo, while also having a damn good time.
If you aren’t familiar with Spike Lee and his work, you’ll find yourself seriously unprepared when chatting with the cool kids at the watercooler or on your next quiz night. Up your movie cred by watching these 10 classic Spike Lee flicks, all written, directed and produced by the legend.
Written in collaboration with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Wilmott, this film is based on the memoir of “black klansman” Ron Stallworth. John David Washington leads a strong cast as Stallworth, a detective in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s as he tries to infiltrate a local Klu Klux Klan chapter. The film is funny, but also frightening, and despite being a ‘period piece’ it shines light on current issues.
Lee mixes his genres expertly in this crim drama, comedy, musical based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for participating in the Peloponnesian war. Here the war is against gang violence on the streets of Chicago. Starring Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris and Jennifer Hudson, this film is nothing if not ambitious.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Lee dips into the horror genre with this film about an anthropologist who finds himself turned into a vampire by an ancient African dagger. Starring Stephen Tyrone Williams and Rami Malek, it is an unofficial remake of the 1973 film Ganja and Hess, and the original screen writer Bill Gunn is credited as a co-writer on this film. This work also stands out in Lee’s collection as it was his first film to be funded through Kickstarter.
Summer of Sam (1999)
In this film Lee takes on the infamous serial killer David Berkowitz, but looks at the events surrounding his killing spree through their effect on a group of fictional Italian-Americans in The Bronx. The film stars John Leguizamo and Adrien Brody who have to battle their own demons while the police hunt the demon on the street. This ambitious film was nominated for a swathe of awards, though it did not take home any of the gongs.
He Got Game (1998)
This film stars Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttleworth, the father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country. Serving a prison sentence for killing his wife, the state governor releases Jake for a week in order to have him convince his son to play for the governor’s alma mater in exchange for a reduced sentence. But the dynamic between father and sun is far from simple. Washington is incredibly watchable as always.
A semi-autobiographical work, this film is set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1970s as a young girl learns the lessons of life alongside her family. A young Zelda Harris is endearing in the leading role, and she is supported by strong performances from Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo. Lee cameos, and with the exception of the title song, the movie has a full, authentic 1970s soundtrack.
Malcolm X (1992)
This biopic stars Denzel Washington as Malcolm X and dramatizes some of the most important events of his life including his criminal career, incarceration, conversion of Islam, marriage, pilgrimage, and assassination. The film features cameos from Lee himself, as well as Bonny Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Rev Al Sharpton and Nelson Mandela.
Jungle Fever (1991)
Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra star in this romantic comedy about an extramarital interracial relationship. Set in New York City in the 1990s, it contrasts the wealth of high-end business with the relatively poverty experienced by local black communities. Samuel L. Jackson gives a great performance of Snipe’s crack addicted older brother, it is considered by some to be his breakout role.
Mo Better Blues (1990)
Starring both Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, it centres of Washington playing a jazz trumpeter that makes some bad decisions which put everything he holds dear at risk. The film focusses on the idea of how we are the author or our own destiny: we create our own troubles, but can also make our own salvation.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee himself leads this ensemble cast that also features Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro and Martin Lawrence in his film debut. It looks at the simmering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighbourhood that end in tragedy on one hot, summer day. This film was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”.