When Spike Lee has something to say, you better listen. Few voices in cinema speak as loud and proud as Spike’s – cutting through the indie scene in the ’80s to become one of the most vital, innovative and politically charged filmmakers around. Spanning comedies, dramas, musicals and documentaries, Spike Lee movies are never the same but always keep their finger on the pulse. With his Vietnam war epic, Da 5 Bloods, arriving on Netflix this summer, it’s time to roll up the 10 greatest Spike Lee joints.
Opening with a warning siren screaming “this is an emergency”, before jumping into an angry musical comedy about gun violence – all based on a classical Greek play and written in rhyming verse – it doesn’t get more Spike Lee than this. Updating Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the warring women of Chicago stage a sex strike until the gangs give up their weapons. Who else but Lee has the balls to take on corporate America with a chorus line of girls in padlocked panties?
Most powerful moment: John Cusack’s angry pulpit preaching, laying out the life of a handgun from sale to slaughter.
Martin Scorsese was originally attached to adapt Richard Price’s gritty New York novel about a low-level dealer caught up in a murder, but he handed it to Lee instead – who underlined the script’s social commentary and gave it the raw, rough edge it needed. Sitting somewhere between The Wire (which Price went on to write) and Scorsese’s own early classics, Clockers hits hard and angry, painting a grim portrait of Brooklyn street life in the ’90s.
Most powerful moment: Clocker Strike (Mekhi Phifer) taking a beating after turning a young kid to crime, all in front of his mum. “You ruined that boy’s life!”
8‘4 Little Girls’ (1997)
Lee has directed several landmark documentaries (see When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts for the definitive story behind Hurricane Katrina) but none are quite as powerful as his Oscar nominated masterpiece exposing the 1963 racist attack on an Alabama church that killed four young African American girls. Lee quiets his own voice to let the victims tell their own unfinished story through family, friends and witnesses – calmly wringing every ounce of pain out of one of America’s great forgotten tragedies.
Most powerful moment: Giving the last word to the mother of murdered 11-year-old, Denise McNair.
7‘Mo’ Better Blues’ (1990)
Music has always played an important role in Lee’s films, but so have his recurring cast of actors including Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro and Denzel Washington, all of whom he cast in this criminally underrated musical about a trumpet player struggling to hold on to his job and his girlfriend in the Brooklyn nightclubs of the late ’60s. Paced like a perfect jazz score and backed by a killer early lead performance from Washington, it’s a funny, frenzied ode to the jazz scene.
Most powerful moment: Washington deals with Wesley Snipes’ grandstanding sax solo by playing one of his own at the same time.
Lee tells his own childhood story through the eyes of nine-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), a girl growing up on the stoops of Brooklyn in the early ’70s. Spike lightens the tone to make his breeziest, most nostalgic film to date – a semi-autobiography dressed up as an affectionate coming-of-age tale. It might be a lot less angry than his usual work, but it still has plenty of bite. Who else could make a kid’s film and cast themselves as a glue-sniffer called “Snuffy”?
Most powerful moment: A dry-eyed hospital goodbye that reveals more about Lee’s past than Troy’s future.
5‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (1986)
Shot on black and white stock for $175,000, with his whole family stepping in to produce, write the score and act in it, Spike Lee reinvented the romcom with his first film. Now spun off into a Netflix series, the film’s legacy has lasted more than any hand-made indie has a right to – but She’s Gotta Have It earned its reputation by shooting from the hip and speaking from the heart and soul of a first-time director who already knew exactly what he wanted to say.
Most powerful moment: Capturing the mood of young love by suddenly skipping into Technicolor for a Singin’ In The Rain style musical picnic.
4‘Malcolm X’ (1992)
On paper, Lee’s sprawling history lesson is pretty mainstream – a weighty, worthy epic about one of America’s great immovable icons. Yet push past the Oscar nominations and Malcolm X stands as one of cinema’s most unique and provocative biopics. Denzel Washington soars in the lead, but it’s Lee that most does Malcolm proud – weaving a sprawling tapestry of an entire American cultural era with the finest of threads.
Most powerful moment: The assassination – a moment of explosive violence handled with chilling quietness.
3’25th Hour’ (2002)
A lot of directors responded to the tragedy of 9/11, but none captured the anger, sadness and existential dread of New York in the early ’00s more than Lee with 25th Hour. Edward Norton stars as a drug dealer on his way to prison – wrapping up his affairs and saying his goodbyes over one last night of freedom before turning himself in, all in the missing shadow of the fallen Twin Towers. It’s a bruising watch, and Lee makes sure we feel every punch.
Most powerful moment: The famous “fuck you” speech: Lee taking time out of the film to remind us how bad things really are.
A reminder of just how loud Lee can shout when enough people are listening – BlacKkKlansman opened with shots from The Birth Of A Nation, closed with an upside down American flag and took aim at modern racism, all from the frame of a history lesson painted as a crime caper. John David Washington and Adam Driver are both fantastic, and Lee juggles genres and tones to take on the Klan with comedy, horror, passion and real life police work. A well-deserved and long-overdue Oscar followed, and Lee’s giddy stage-jump spoke for his whole career.
Most powerful moment: Ending the film with chilling real-life footage of the 2017 car-ram attack during the infamous 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.
1‘Do The Right Thing’ (1989)
Supremely confident, occasionally hilarious, and always provocative, Lee’s hot-blooded masterpiece is one of the most important films of the ’80s – laying out a whole new manifesto for American indie films to the sound of Public Enemy. ‘Fight The Power’ became synonymous with Lee for a reason – not just because it perfectly fit the soundtrack to his masterwork of racial tensions heating up on one sweltering New York day – but because the film itself set the tone for his whole body of work. Angry, funny, loud and always saying something worth listening to.
Most powerful moment: Radio Raheem punching through the fourth wall with love and hate rings. Only bettered when Lee wore the same thing to pick up his first Oscar 30 years later.