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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Spike Lee

Born in 1957 to art and black literature teacher Jacqueline Carroll and jazz musician Bill Lee, Shelton Jackson Lee, more commonly known as Spike Lee, is one of today’s most prolific and influential filmmakers. He made his first foray into filmmaking with his student film Last Hustle in Brooklyn while at Morehouse College, Atlanta before completing a masters in film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts.

By 1983, he had made his first short film called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which was assisted by classmate Ang Lee (who went on to direct hugely successful films such as Brokeback Mountain) and Ernest R. Dickerson (who went on to direct episodes of TV shows such as Dexter and The Walking Dead).

After the success of his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Lee went on to direct the critically acclaimed Do the Right Thing, and the biographical epic Malcolm X. Through the decades, Lee’s success only continued, and the success of films such as Inside Man, Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman, and Da 5 Bloods showed Lee’s continued dedication to cinema.

Lee’s films largely centre around race relations, politics, colourism in the black community, poverty, and crime, with his films also utilising specific cinematographic techniques such as dolly zooms. In 2015, Lee was rewarded with an Honorary Academy Award, making him the youngest ever to receive one. Spike Lee’s dedication to filmmaking, evidenced in his prolific outpour of films, has been a huge inspiration to countless independent filmmakers, making him one of the most important directors of our time.

Spike Lee’s six definitive films:

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Released in 1986, She’s Gotta Have It was the director’s first feature-length film. The film stars Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell and Spike Lee himself. Johns plays a woman called Nola who juggles three different men, with the film exploring how this affects each party. She’s Gotta Have It was praised for its positive depiction of African Americans that strayed away from stereotypes. Nola represents the struggle that African American women face in society; she idealises the kind of sexual freedom that men are given yet women are frowned upon for exploring.

Lee’s film was responsible for launching his career, and he not only directed the picture but also produced, edited, and starred in it with a budget of just $175,000. The film was also responsible for bringing prominence to the American independent movement of the 1980s. The film’s themes are still just as relevant today, so much so that Lee even adapted his film into a television show in 2017.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Despite only being Lee’s third feature film, Do the Right Thing is perhaps his most well-known and well-loved picture. Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and (rather unsurprisingly) Spike Lee, the film takes place on one hot summer day, mid-heatwave, where racial tensions between Italian American pizzeria owners and African American residents reach boiling point in a Brooklyn neighbourhood. The film includes an incredible soundtrack, with a jazz score by Lee’s father Bill Lee, and the Public Enemy track ‘Fight the Power’ specifically penned for the movie.

Film critic Gene Siskel described the film as “a spiritual documentary that shows racial joy, hatred, and confusion at every turn” and ranked it at number one in his best films of 1989, which was further echoed in the overwhelmingly positive critical consensus. Of course, the exploration of race relations caused some rather sensitive white critics to take offence, with some worrying that the film would inspire Black audiences to start riots, which Lee has responded to by saying “that still bugs the shit out of me,” referring to such reviews as “outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist”.

Malcolm X (1992)

Lee’s epic biographical drama Malcolm X about the African-American activist traverses key events in his life: from his incarceration, pilgrimage to Mecca, to his tragic assassination. Malcolm X is played magnificently by Denzel Washington, alongside Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, and Lee himself, and there are even cameo appearances from Nelson Mandela and the Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. The film utilises flashbacks to depict important moment’s from Malcolm X’s life, such as his father’s death and encounters with racism.

Any doubts about Lee’s status as a respected filmmaker were cemented during the filming of Malcolm X – it became the first non-documentary film given permission to film in Mecca, and a second unit film crew were hired to film there, since non-Muslims are not allowed within the city. The film was praised by critics, being labelled one of the best biographical films ever made.

25th Hour (2002)

Based on the book of the same name written by David Benioff, Lee expressed interest in directing the film after actor Toby Maguire read the book and suggested that Benioff adapt the novel into a screenplay. Although Maguire wanted to play the main character Monty, his commitments to Spider Man left him unable to do so, instead, the role was handed to Edward Norton, with Maguire one of the film’s producers. The film depicts a man’s last 24 hours of freedom before the start of his prison sentence and also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper and Rosario Dawson.

25th Hour was praised for its depiction of a post-9/11 New York with critic Mick LaSalle stating that the film is as much an urban historical document as Rossellini’s Open City, filmed in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Rome. 25th Hour includes a stunningly performed monologue by Monty, which is one of the features of the screenplay that attracted Lee to the project, despite Benioff suggesting it should be cut.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Another magnificent adaptation of Lee’s, BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, who was a black police officer that infiltrated the KKK during the 1970s. Starring frequent Lee collaborator Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington as Ron, the film was a huge success, garnering six nominations from the Academy, including Best Picture and Best Director, which was Lee’s first time ever receiving a nomination for the latter. BlacKkKlansman won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Released in the midst of Donald Trump’s time as US President, who is, as we know, widely supported by KKK members, the film uses America’s intensely racist history to commentate on contemporary events. BlacKkKlansman was described as bringing “out some of Spike Lee’s hardest-hitting work in decades.” The box office statistics can attest to this, as the film managed to make a total of $93.4 million worldwide against its $15 million budget.

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Lee’s most recent directorial effort is Da 5 Bloods, a Netflix release that proved to be Lee’s most expensive film to date. Starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, and Clarke Peters, Da 5 Bloods follows four ageing Vietnam war veterans that reunite to search for the remains of their squad leader Norman, as well as the treasure they had left buried where they were serving.

The film’s soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, which was written and composed by long-time Lee collaborator Terrence Blanchard. Lee was praised for his direction, while Lindo and supporting actor Chadwick Boseman were also highly commended for their performances. Lee’s exploration of the relationship between racism and warfare is passionate and ambitious, leading critics to put the film on countless top films of the year lists.