Ranking the Spike Lee Films

Films Still to Watch: Mo’ Better Blues, Miracle at St. Anna, Old Boy

Films Still to Rewatch: Jungle Fever25th HourInside Man, Red Hook Summer

With Spike Lee, there is the style and there is the politics.  That is not to say these things should (or even can) be not discussed together because they are interwoven. You need to discuss the what of Lee films along with the how. The what of Spike’s films are often what draw me to him. The politics cannot be separated, ignored, or coddled because in many ways Spike Lee films feel like essay films. They have a very specific point they are making – regardless of whether or not that this is the point Lee is trying to make.

18. Get on the Bus [1996]

Spike Lee’s well-meaning film about a dozen black men heading to the Million Man March. Lee’s most theatrical-feeling work attempts to dispute any notion that black manhood is a monolith and creates a diverse group of characters to discuss a variety of issues related to their common and unique experiences about being a black man in the United States. This work never really escapes “substitute teacher lesson plan” status sadly beyond a distinct visual style and some charismatic work by several performers.


17. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus [2014]

Spike Lee’s only attempt at crowdfunding led to an absolutely batshit movie which is apparently a very close remake of the 1973 original version. The two things about this movie that I unabashedly loved were the music and look. It is just a gorgeous film, and the way the blood was contrasting with everything else was just so good.

Now for the not good things, the most notably not good thing is Rami Malek. How is he so bad in such a nothing role?? Rami Malek’s capacity to be bad at acting knows no bounds though. Anyway, this movie is an interesting footnote in Spike’s career.


16. She Hate Me [2004]

One thing that Bamboozled really crystalized for me is that all Spike Lee films are, to one degree of another, essay films. This is an important idea to come to terms with because there can be a temptation to put aside the politics of films or filmmakers. And at times, that seems appropriate. But that would seem dishonest for examining Spike Lee films because Spike Lee IS trying to say things about the world in his films.

So, what is he saying in this film? What does the evidence say?

Despite Spike Lee earning more than his fair share of credibility and goodwill from decades of beautiful film, it is impossible to see this film – based on what is on the screen – as anything but a cynical exploration of the supposed emasculation of the black man. Now, we know there are plenty of ways in which this sick and twisted country tears down black people and the particular ways in which black men are targeted. But this satirical concept of Anthony Mackie becoming a sperm donor – the old fashioned way – for hire for lesbians reads continuously as misguided at best and incredibly mean and reactionary at worst.

Films like this and Da 5 Bloods, showcase that Spike Lee’s empathy for the people of the world has its limits. When he is not dealing with the black experience in regards to white America, Spike shows his weaknesses. And much like the Da 5 Bloods, there are moments in this film when Spike IS dealing with that and you see the same razor sharp understanding of those dynamics and issues. But that is not what this film is largely about.


15. Pass Over [2018]

“I want that good life now.”

Filming a live production of a play is one of those things that does not sound all that interesting on paper. The theater is something entirely different than film, and it takes a lot of skill just to effectively adapt a play for the big screen. To straight up film a play and make it seem like a worthwhile venture is an even bigger challenge. Spike Lee managed to make something out of it. The key was that he took what should have been a weakness and used it for his advantage. The theater can feel suffocating on a screen. It can make you feel trapped. For a play about two young black coping with being stuck in an oppressive city in the United States, the smothering feeling caused by the play contributes greatly to the terrifying mood of not just this film but also for what it is like to be black in this country.


14. BlacKkKlansman [2018]

BlackKklansman is probably the only Spike Lee film that could be considered a genuine commercial, critical, AND awards smash hit. Which means something must be wrong with it because what about this Spike film made it so palatable on such a mass level?

The easiest thing to do is to examine the ending. Spike goes for the cathartic feel-good ending that reinforces the myth that the problems with cops and the police is that there are a few rotten apples. All the cops celebrate and congratulate each other on a job well done after ensnaring the “one” Actually Bad racist cop rotten apple among them. Thank goodness for the police! In a film explicitly trying to state that extreme white supremacy is alive and well, it’s truly incredible to portray the offspring of slave catchers this way. But it got Spike his Oscar, and it is begrudgingly a pretty easy and fun watch.


13. Da 5 Bloods [2020]

As much as the film is an essay criticizing American Exceptionalism and assimilation, the film falls into the same cinematic trappings that so many films from the United States about Vietnam have been doing for years.

So much about this film is gorgeous and beautifully done. But man. How do you make this story and still turn the handful of Vietnamese people into essentially just props for the story? How do you show clips of Angela Davis and Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and still make the Vietnamese into those props? How do you tease international solidarity and then never even truly scratch the surface of pushing for that?

In some ways, this movie is about the contradictions of life. The sadness of the contradictions. The tragedy of the contradictions that black people are forced to navigate in order to survive in the United States.

Spike Lee is, obviously, interested in the black experience. And how the United States of America have fucked over black people from long before the United States even existed. And while trying to parse rich, old-man Spike’s politics seems like a fruitless endeavor, this film feels like an essay film more than anything else.

An essay film needs to be examined through the lense of what the film is saying (regarding of what you suspect it is trying to say). Spike simultaneously captures the brutal conditions and choices that black people go through while also ignoring (at best) or belittling (at worst) the intersections of similary oppressed people. It is a blindspot for Spike, and that blindspot makes the film interesting if always leaving me feeling conflicted at the end.


12. Sucker Free City [2004]

Sucker Free City was meant to be a television series, and this was the planned pilot. It was retroactively turned into a television movie after Showtime decided against picking up the show. The two hour project is probably more effective as a small film than as an exercise in convincing suits to give them more money to make more episodes of this. It is a vibes heavy, slice of life episode that somewhat tritely captures different groups of people San Francisco just as it is about to be taken over completely by the worst human beings in the world. Ken Leung in particular was a real standout here, and it is a shame we don’t have years of this show with Leung. But beyond that, having this one small film is a blessing and definitely worth seeking out.


11. Chi-Raq [2015]

Chi-Raq in some ways feels like it has gotten lost in the shuffle in this late Spike era. BlackKklansman was a smash hit in every way, and Da 5 Bloods was right in the thick of it awards wise (despite being shut out of the big dance itself). But from this stretch of films, I think I have come to appreciate Chi-Raq the most of the three.

One of the greatest modern travesties in this country is that countless young people of color get gunned down in the streets time and time again. Spike is quite despondent about this fact and is particularly hung up on the gang violence aspect of it. While there are few certainties in this film, Spike is clearly particularly devastated by the dynamic of young black people killing other young black people over what ultimately adds up to bullshit.

We all (should) know that it is the material conditions of this country that are driving this situation. And, obviously, Spike has addressed those conditions in his art time and time again and as much as anyone (if not more so than anyone) remotely connected to mainstream Hollywood. Chi-Raq does not feel directed at the general populace though. It instead feels like a desperate plea to his fellow Black Americans that we have to try to escape this dynamic. The film speaks one of the eternal struggles of what it is to black in this hellhole country: the balance between fixing the material conditions of their own lives while understanding that the system has to change (read: be burned down) for any real longterm solutions to take hold.

Spike is sad here. He is inquisitive. He is a man grasping at straws. He does not know what to do, and he does not know what to say. He is turning to heavily stylized satire. The purposely absurd works better for Spike than the accidentally absurd. Chi-Raq is a messy film but in a manner that you find empathetic instead of frustrating. It’s a better space for late Spike whose limitations hinder his films where he is more decisive and certain about what he is saying.


10. Summer of Sam [1999]

This is a rare Spike Lee movie where he seems less interested in having something specific to say and more is just drawn to a vibe, hanging out with characters, and capturing a very specific moment in New York history. In some ways, a film like from Spike is more appealing than some of his misguided “essay/I have something I need to say” films that go off the rails or showcase the limits of his worldview.

Summer of Sam is about a wide ranger of broken and annoying people, and the shenanigans they get up to in the midst of the very real terror that they were experiencing. The most interesting thing in the film was how Spike Lee was able to call attention to the contradiction of the whole city being terrified of killer who killed a handful of people over a long period of time vs. the very real terrifying conditions under which all the citizens lived in. Spike uncharacteristically does not say too much about it and instead just forces the audience to sit with it.


9. Girl 6 [1996]

Spike’s minor works that feel less grand have a larger margin of error than something like She Hate Me or Da 5 Bloods. With his minor work, they have the freedom to mostly just exist on their owns and feel less like his trademarked essay films. Of course, this is a false dichotomy that I am needlessly creating, and his films really exist on a spectrum.

After all, Spike Lee does have things to say in Girl 6, but he does not have much to say and what he is exploring he does not seem to offer much insight into. Black women are otherized, fetishized, hypersexualized in the minds of men, have limited options, and constantly pushed into a corner and set up to fail (or to fall down an elevator shaft). But again, the movie is not really about that. It’s about Theresa Randle and a character study of Girl 6. On that level, the film is more than solid.


8. She Gotta Have It [1986]

In many ways, while far from perfect, She’s Gotta Have It is a stunning debut feature film from Spike Lee. It really empathetically captures what it is like to be young in the city with your whole life in front of you and just have no idea what the hell you want. In particular, when you are lost and confused, you can just run over other people. You become so self-absorbed that your brain becomes wired to prioritize your own needs and desires to such a destructive and eventually self-destructive degree. The deeper tragedy of this point in a person’s life is that in reality it should be the most freeing and liberated period of someone’s life but you can be so lost that you cannot even enjoy the ride. On paper, Nola Darling is “living her best life.” But she does not even get to enjoy it.


7. Clockers [1995]

In many ways, Clockers feels like Spike’s companion film to Chi-Raq. It is a sincere reaction from the filmmaker to the rage and sadness he feels about how many young black people get gunned down the streets of this stupid-ass country.

Instead of the absurd satire Spike would do decades later with Chi-Raq, Clockers goes for something a bit more grounded and makes more explicit use of metaphor. Mekhi Phifer is a street level drug dealer. His brother, Isaiah Washington, has been trying to uplift himself through hard work and turning the other cheek. While it’s a reductive dichotomy, Mekhi Phifer and Isaiah Washington really show the fucking trap of rebelling vs. assimilating. How can you actually win as a black man in this country?

At this point in time, it kind of seems like Spike is not asking that question rhetorically? He has an answer. And the answer is that there is no way for a black man to win in this country. Things are hopeless broken. He shows that the rot is so deep. Mekhi has a crippling stomach ailment that eats away at him the inside. He also has an addiction to…milk? There is a childlike stunted quality to him. This country to murdering him and leaving him defenseless.


6. School Daze [1988]

When I watched this film, I could not help but think of Spike’s later film, Get on the Bus. While that film felt like a trite and reductive exploration of how the black experience in the United States is not a monolith, School Daze felt like a more successful version of that in just about every way.

Daze is an exploration of the tragedy of the United States. Deep down everyone understands that we are on our own in this fucked up country. It is a particularly tragic truth for black people who managed to get a chance to uplift their individual lives.

The most powerful scene addressing this issue is the KFC scene. The conflict between local black townies and the HBCU revolutionary minded showed the ways in which the systems divides black people in this country and from others worldwide. How can we possibly combat this situation on all fronts?


5. Crooklyn [1994]

Then it’s good she died. So she wouldn’t have to suffer.”

I was in no way prepared for how beautiful and impactful this film was going to be. The film is about a black family in Bed-Stuy in the early 70s and all that comes with that. Spike’s usual brilliance comes through as he seamlessly blends incredibly specific ideas about the black experience in the United States along with universal human truths.

Spike does all this by emphasizing the mood most of all in this movie. There is a chaotic tone established early on. The movie beautifully captures what it is like to be in a large family where it always feels like a dozen conversations are happening at once and a million conflicts are criss-crossing at once. Spike does this lovingly while also showing the very complicated nuances to all the dynamics within a family.

Spike moves from scene to scene seamlessly, forcing the audience to experience the movie rather than trying to understand how they got from A to B (to C). It allows the chaotic mood to develop organically as opposed to forcing a few big plot points to bring about the chaos. You can feel father still wants to chase his dreams. You can see how the mom has given up her dreams. You understand how the children are internalizing all these issues and the trauma that will inform their lives later. It is just spellbinding, and it is absolutely one of Spike’s very best.


4. He Got Game [1998]

Like many other Spike Lee films, I saw this for the first time too young and did not appreciate it. And also like so many films in Spike’s first decade+ of making feature films, he displays a master-level ability of being able to accurately portray the generational pain this country forces on its people. His ability to do all that without pitying the people at all. He does it though all the while capturing the beauty of people and bringing out their inner life.

Like all of Spike’s most essential films, there is something about He Got Game that makes you feel like it is a critical piece of understanding the history of the United States. On the surface, the film is about Jesus Shuttlesworth having to make a choice about where he is going to play college basketball, and a father reconnecting with his son. And while those elements are there for sure and beautifully done, the film is in some ways much more about confronting the fact that this country is founded on rape and theft. The people who paid the price for the existence of this country have never been made whole. They have been denied access to the fruits of their labor, and they are forced to compete for the chance to be allowed one of the few who gets to be successful. A grim tale for a grim country.


3. Do the Right Thing [1987]

Do the Right Thing is one of the most remarkable films that has ever happened. With my latest viewing, I took the unusual step of trying to step away from the context of “knowing” the film. I tried to just drop in and experience the film as if I knew nothing about it – not merely as if I was watching it for the first time. I was able to do that because I was showing the film to a friend who knew nothing about it – who knew nothing about Radio Raheem and his fate in this film. Because after ninety minutes, Sal is in a good mood and celebrating a good day and trying to do something nice for his community. Watching my friend’s just deep reaction allowed me to approach the movie from just a more purely emotional and experiential place. For ninety minutes, you get a sense and a feeling of what existing in this community was like. The heavily stylized look, characterizations, and conflicts serve the purpose of shining a light on the deeply troubling truths of this world. And now something is wrong. Tensions are simmering. There are no easy solutions. And one wrong move, and it call can explode. But even after the explosion, things will just keep on keeping on. A profoundly sad film in every way while still remaining deeply beautiful for how human it is.


2. Malcolm X [1992]

Malcolm X is one of the most spellbinding films that has ever been made. Much like the rest of Spike’s very best work, the film is a masterclass on style and voice.

Malcolm X is one of the most essential and important people from this country to ever exist. Lee seamlessly weaves the major periods of Malcolm’s life together into a tapestry that allows you to feel what his life was like and understand the larger arc of his journey. Lee tells the story of Malcolm on what he meant on a macro level and to the people around him with the beautiful empathy Lee has been known for all of his career. On just a human level, the film is devastating.

And while impressive, similar feats have been accomplished before and just as well. What makes this movie so distinctly special though is the match in heaven that his Spike Lee’s voice with the message (to be reductive) to be told with Malcolm X’s life story (to be cruel). Malcom’s story and the world he tried to create was an indictment of the United States of America. Malcolm embodied the rejection of the United States. Few if any other filmmakers in the country had the skill and voice to pull off this film as meaningfully and authentically as it needed to be.


1. Bamboozled [2000]

After watching this film for the first time, twenty-two years after it was originally released, my biggest takeaway was that it felt like the most important Spike Lee film because Bamboozled feels like the film that Spike Lee wanted and needed to make his whole career.

It is also the film that finally allowed me to have a lens in which to understand my reaction to many Spike Lee films where my feelings felt less than resolved. Bamboozled is the epitome of a narrative essay film. Spike Lee has things to say, and even more so than most of his other films, Spike is very explicit in what he wants to say here.

The United States of America is a racist hellhole, and that reality is captured best by its number one export: Hollywood. Spike Lee takes on the backstage and onscreen Hollywood racism directly and with no punches pulled.

With Spike, it’s never just what he is saying though; the beauty is in how he shoots his movies. Spike uses that ugly digital early 2000s look (think Inland Empire) and camera angles that mostly reminded of “found footage” horror films. That is important, because the story of racism in Hollywood (and in this country) is a motherfucking horror show. Instead of found footage, it almost feels like a hidden camera at time. It feels like Spike is blowing the whistle on Hollywood with the way he shoots this movie.

Read: Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled by Ashley Clark


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