American filmmaker Spike Lee is considered to be one of the greatest living filmmakers. Through masterpieces such as Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, Lee has explored issues of race relations and societal prejudices with an unprecedented and unparalleled force. For his brilliant work, Lee has received several accolades including an Academy Award, further cementing his cinematic legacy.
In an interview, Lee once said: “I consider myself a storyteller. I feel that is what good directors do, they are really just following criteria: is this a good story? Is this the story I want to tell? All we’re trying to do is the hard task of making interesting, thought-provoking films. I don’t choose stories based on how controversial they are… I’ve never wanted to make mindless entertainment.”
He added, “There have been more occasions than not where critics review what they feel is the persona of Spike Lee, what their personal views are about me, as opposed to reviewing the film. Therefore they neglect the people who work behind the camera and those who work in front of the camera and focus on Spike Lee — to the detriment of the film.”
On his 64th birthday, and with his words ringing in our ears, we revisit Spike Lee’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
See the full list, below.
Spike Lee’s 10 best films of all time:
10. Inside Man (2006)
This 2006 heist thriller manages to create a gripping tale about a Wall Street bank heist over the course of 24 hours. Denzel Washington stars as an NYPD hostage negotiator. While preparing for the role, Washington took inspiration from the figure of Brutus in Julius Caesar.
Denzel Washington, once said: “I didn’t do a whole lot of extensive research, because I just didn’t have the time. I was doing a play on Broadway and had all of five days off before rehearsals, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you I did a whole bunch off stuff.
“We hung out with some New York City detectives. Part of the reason I liked the idea of doing the film was because it’s very wordy. This guy talks a lot. And I was getting good practice playing Brutus. So, it’s like, ’Shakespeare Goes to the Street.’”
9. Clockers (1995)
Clockers is a powerful thesis on the problems affecting the Black community in the United States. While combining pop-art techniques and unique editing, Lee tells the story of a young drug dealer who gets caught up in something sinister.
“I saw the most gruesome autopsy photos you could imagine,” Lee once recalled. “Of course, it would have been in bad taste to use the actual photos in the film, so we duplicated them. We did this for effect; we wanted the viewers to know, before they even settled into their seats, that our film was about serious business.
“This movie is the exact opposite of the big-budget action films you see, which are full of cartoony killings. We weren’t going to treat life cheaply in Clockers, because when you take a life, it’s forever. There are too many kids being killed on the streets of this country, and it’s no joke to me.”
8. 4 Little Girls (1997)
A moving historical documentary about the murder of four Black girls in 1963, 4 Little Girls presents an unflinching look at the racial prejudices that have plagued history. For his startling vision, Lee earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary category.
When speaking about the film, Lee revealed: “We were in this public library in Alabama, and we asked to see the morgue photos, not knowing that they had them. When the clerk called the photos out, we were startled and taken aback. You can imagine what 20 sticks of dynamite can do. But when you see the results, it literally brings tears to your eyes.”
7. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Lee’s 1986 comedy-drama is a vastly influential film from the American independent film movement, showing the world that it was possible to break free from racial stereotypes. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon, Lee’s film was even adapted for a Netflix series in 2017.
”I heard a lot of my male friends bragging about how many women they have in their stables,” the filmmaker said. ”But if word gets back to them that one of those women is not even seeing another man, but just thinking about it, they go through the roof.”
He added, “That paradox is funny, it’s really crazy. So I decided it would be a good idea to do a film about a young black woman who’s really leading her life like a man, in control, with three men dangling at her fingertips.”
6. Crooklyn (1994)
Crooklyn is a brilliant semi-autobiographical tale about a young girl Troy who navigates the labyrinths of life while living in Brooklyn. Although it was dismissed by some critics when it was first released, the film has come to be recognised as a true cult-classic.
Lee reflected, “I think that film is universally loved because of the family aspect, you know? An African-American family in Brooklyn in the early ’70s — I think that’s something people have been drawn to over the years.”
5. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
One of the funniest films of 2018 which manages to become an insightful commentary about race relations, BlacKkKlansman is a biographical black comedy that follows an African-American detective who tries to infiltrate the KKK. The film won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and received several other awards and nominations.
“We were just trying to tell truth to power,” the director explained. “You know? It had to be a period piece that also comments on what is happening today with this guy in the White House. The whole thing with [NFL players and] the anthem, building the wall, ‘Mexicans are rapists’… it’s just crazy. The Year of Living Dangerously, that’s where we are.”
4. When the Levees Broke (2006)
Arguably one of the finest documentaries ever made, When the Levees Broke chronicles the widespread destruction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Lee picked up three Emmy Awards for his investigative masterpiece and even received a Peabody Award.
“The one thing that was surprising me going in,” Lee said, “[is] I didn’t think there would be as much humor as there ended up being. But we just successfully captured the spirit of people. It was one of those things that I have to laugh to keep from crying. Some said they were still crying despite the laughing.”
3. 25th Hour (2002)
Based on David Benioff’s novel, 25th Hour is a brilliant exploration of the internal conflicts of a man’s final 24 hours of liberty before he is sentenced to prison for dealing drugs. Now regarded as one of the finest films of the decade, 25th Hour is Spike Lee’s existential take on the human condition.
While addressing the film’s relation to 9/11, Lee commented: “I would like to add that the decision regarding 9/11 was not a big decision. I made that in a millisecond. I knew I was going to do; I just had to think how I was going to do. That was a much bigger and harder decision because I didn’t want to offend anyone and we still knew there was a way to deal with it in a tasteful way but not run away from what happened.”
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Malcolm X is possibly the best biopic ever made, telling the story of an angry revolutionary who did not hesitate to call out the hypocrisies of systemic racism and advocated for self-reliance. The film does not just present Malcolm X’s life but amplifies his pain and anguish to dizzying extents.
The filmmaker recalled: “I became acquainted with Malcolm X in junior high school, when we had to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for a class. It meant a lot. That’s the most important book I (have) ever read. It changed the way I viewed everything . . . the world . . . my relation to the world (as) an African-American living in this country.”
1. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s magnum opus transports the viewer to a Brooklyn neighbourhood during a hot summer, slowly uncovering the racial tensions and the deep-rooted problems in the community until catastrophe strikes. Do The Right Thing became a critical and commercial success and is now counted among the best films ever made.
Lee said: “I wanted it to be one 24-hour period, the hottest day of the summer. I wanted the film to take place on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant. So that’s all the stuff I needed to work with, to start with. From there I could just go ahead and do what I had to do.
“The script doesn’t come to life till you shoot it. The finished film’s always going to be different. I’m always true to what I’m saying, but the most important thing is to do what’s right. If I write something, and it comes out in rehearsals that something else is better, we change it.”