It’s hard to fathom how long Spike Lee has had the political conscience in his grasp, through decades he’s dove deep into race and class in America in a way no other filmmaker has. Remarkably, his passion and bravura haven’t diminished a bit with age. Although a respected elder stateman with two Oscars under his belt, he had refused to blunt his criticism of a society that imperils people of color. And, sadly, his voice is as necessary as ever. Lee first emerged at a time when the American independent scene was thriving, but although Lee has made his share of studio films, he has found that path to be difficult, unable to get passion projects off the ground and, instead, shooting films on a shoestring budget in order to tell vital, provocative stories. But it’s not like those obstacles have ever slowed him down: He’s made plenty of documentaries, filmed theater, crime thrillers, wacky satires, epic biopics and 9/11 elegies. Sometimes his movies fall short, but you never doubt that he’s giving his all to every one of them. Even his bad movies seems energized by his daring ways. So with his new film Da 5 Bloods having hit Netflix this past weekend, I’ve decided to rank his formidable oeuvre. I’ve also only decided to rank his fiction films; so no documentaries, comedy specials or filmed theater. So let’s begin…
23. She Hate Me (2004)
Even Lee’s biggest duds have a blazing volatility to them, their unfocused ideas bouncing around with an insistence that they need to be heard. But this low-budget 2004 trinket is nothing but half-formulated, provocative notions that refuse to congeal. In one of his first major film roles, Anthony Mackie plays a newly unemployed executive who, desperate for money, agrees to impregnate his lesbian ex-girlfriend (Kerry Washington) and all her friends. A satire on corporate greed and sexual politics, She Hate Me is often misogynistic and shrill, capped by a WTF cameo by John Turturro. Sadly, he’s the best part of the film.
22. Girl 6 (1996)
Lee has been accused of struggling with female characters, and while that’s generally not a fair criticism, it’s hard not to understand the criticism in this dead-on-arrival phone sex “comedy.” The first film Lee directed but didn’t write, it has particularly slapdash, almost flippant attitude, as if Lee wasn’t fully invested in the material. It features, somewhat ridiculously, cameos ranging from Naomi Campbell, Halle Berry, Quentin Tarantino, and Madonna, in case you were wondering just vast a misfire this was.
21. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Turns out that Lee’s feud with Clint Eastwood over Eastwood’s film Flag of Our Fathers lack of black characters was a lot more memorable than the movie he made as a response to Hollywood’s history of minimizing African-Americans’ battlefield contributions. This 2008 commercial bomb fascinates because it shows the veteran filmmaker still pushing himself as he attempts a grand-canvas WWII epic with some grippingly tense battle scenes. But as with so many of his ambitious misfires, Miracle at St. Anna works mostly as an intriguing experiment, saddled with a dull, sentimental narrative that traffics in the kind of war-movie clichés you’d assume Lee would be too smart to repeat.
20. Oldboy (2013)
Proving that Spike is still game for fresh challenges, Oldboy represents two firsts for him: This was his first remake and his first time trying his hand at a gritty, nasty revenge thriller. Staying relatively faithful to South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s grueling and silly original about an innocent man locked away for decades by a shadowy group, this Americanized version ends up feeling like an intriguing footnote in Spike’s career rather than exciting new terrain. Moreover, Josh Brolin’s decidedly monochromatic performance oddly adds to the impression that everybody involved just wanted to indulge in a little B-movie darkness. As a visual storyteller, Lee is always exciting to watch, but his best films provoke deeper passions in him than what’s on display in Oldboy. It’s an intriguing curiosity (that also sadly had some studio meddling), which isn’t the same as saying that it’s exactly good.
19. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015)
Marked by an amazingly restless laidback and frenetic energy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a pretty solid parable of the parasitic divide between the haves and the have-nots, between men and women, between black and white. It’s also about the loneliness and the social estrangement that characterizes life of this wide variety of social spectrums, that as well knowingly delivers a cathartic pleasure of the rarefied life that’s enabled by mass suffering. Oh, and it’s also a vampire movie.
18. Red Hook Summer (2012)
Like so much of Lee’s ferociously flawed, incredibly vital oeuvre, Red Hook Summer oscillates between extremes: it’s borderline amateurish one moment and heartbreaking the next, a god-fearing and god-forsaken mess that could only have come from Lee, whose strengths have always been inextricable from his weaknesses. But in particularly Red Hook Hook Summer‘s generational and ideological clashes make it palpable, with it all building to one of the darker and more unsuspecting twists in all of Lee’s career.
17. Get on the Bus (1996)
Like the Million Man March that provides the film its framework, Get on the Bus feels forgotten: The big event didn’t turn out to have nearly as much the lasting influence as the movie clearly thought it was going to. It’s still a lively, compelling extended one-act play, albeit one that’s pretty on-the-nose, blatant and surfacy. It’s a little too upfront and broad, a little too One-Archetype-Talking-To-Another-Archetype that betrays the slapdash way it was conceived and filmed. Still, Lee’s archetypes are more enjoyable to listen to then those of lesser filmmakers.
16. School Daze (1988)
School Daze, in many ways, is the film that set the template of what we’d all come to know and expect from a Spike Lee joint; it’s messy, wildly varying in tones, and frequently undisciplined. Yet through all that, there’s still plenty to absorb; from the film’s hefty themes of colorism, groupthink, and class divisions throughout the facets of the African-American community to the film’s numerous comedic moments. Importantly, though, School Daze is Lee still finding his voice as a filmmaker (it was his second feature), so the film still sees him just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Yet, it’s that rough charm which makes it so infectious.
15. Chi-Raq (2015)
Lee has never been known for clockwork precision or delicacies: Even some of his best movies are shaggy and rough around the edges. But Chi-Raq is messy even for him, with countless subplots, entirely extraneous characters, a shaky through-line, and several scenes that seem to exist for no other reason than that Lee just thought they’d be funny. The movie is all over the place, especially in the last hour, and features so many narrative detours that it can actually be hard to follow at times. Yet, it’s still fascinating in many ways. Lee shows an energy, gusto and an all-out blitzkrieg of inspiration. The movie is a cauldron of huge emotions constantly boiling over, and Lee just lets them run wild. There are some sequences here that are so big and powerful and skilled that are on a peak Lee level. Essentially, it’s a glorious mess.
14. Summer of Sam (1999)
Centered on the Son of Sam murders in New York in the summer of ’77, Summer of Sam is a film embroiled in panic and fear of the other, a film that is both gaudy and imperfect, with scenes of graphic violence uneasily existing alongside broad ethnic comedy, yet it’s still one of Spike Lee’s biggest, and most interesting, hot messes.
13. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Famously shot in two weeks on a nonexistent budget, Lee’s first film is completely all over the place, part in-your-face polemic, part Woody Allen-esque social comedy. Like its main character (played by Lee), the film is obnoxious, loud, incorrigible, and completely ingratiating, yet has the infectious charm of a young artist on the rise.
12. Jungle Fever (1991)
This romantic drama was sold as a provocative interracial relationship story between an architect (Wesley Snipes) and one of his temps (Annabella Sciorra), but it’s best remembered for its unflinching side story about the architect’s drug-addicted brother, played by a fantastic Samuel L. Jackson. Too often, Jackson’s body of work is reduced to his portrayals of badasses, but Jungle Fever is easily one of his finest, most touching performances.
11. He Got Game (1998)
Spike Lee’s son Jackson was born in 1997, and while it may have been completely coincidental, the next year he delivered He Got Game, a compelling father-son drama that feels intensely personal. (Lee wrote the film himself.) Denzel Washington plays a convicted murderer who tries to convince his estranged basketball-prodigy teen (Ray Allen) to attend the governor’s alma mater so that he can be released early from prison. As is Lee’s custom, the film meanders through some vivid, if not always necessary subplots (in particular, Mila Jovovich’s hooker storyline). But rather impressively, Allen, who had just started his NBA career, more than holds his own against Washington as a solid tentpole for the film.
10. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Having being put in the tough spot of being the follow up to Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues still stands as one of Spike and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s visual tour de forces. Putting the viewer in the life of a jazzman’s night-owl eyes, starting with an opening credits sequence that bathes a solitary trumpet in a sumptuous, shiny metallic blue light. Dickerson’s vibrant reds also dominate his canvas and are synonymous with sin: It’s in the bright red light that bursts forth from the open door of the jazz club as a man is dragged out to be beaten in the street, and in the same red dress that both of Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) women wear to a meeting at which they weren’t supposed to simultaneously appear. Dickerson treats those cool blues and hot reds like the proverbial angel and devil on our protagonist’s shoulders. And while some of the dialogue can get clunky, it’s those indelible images (and a impassion Denzel performance) that often so speak for themselves and make this film unforgettable.
9. Clockers (1995)
In response against the plethora of flashy (some even glorifying) ’90s “hood” movies that came in the wake of Spike’s success, Lee made Clockers: a film in which he toned down the snap and flourishes of his montage, muted his vibrant environment in favor of streetlight shadows, and co-opted jerky, handheld zooms in the vein of cinéma vérité. And the result is a more sober, mournful and meditative expressionism than you’d expect. His personality is still felt, but it also feels more grounded. But that’s also not say the film isn’t suspenseful — it very much is — but the director’s distaste for gun culture is very evident, as Clockers is a study of the dope-dealing culture and the toll it takes on everyone who comes in contact with it, putting a whole society trapped in a cycle of despair and violence.
8. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
A true-life story about a pair of cops (John David Washington and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the KKK in 1970s Colorado is as urgent and furious as just about any Spike Lee movie. BlacKkKlansman uses its true story to launch into a desperate, almost shaking rage about the continual national problems. Lee isn’t always the strongest on some of the specific plot mechanics, but his detours and side rants are pleading and imperative: It’s a film that is about the now but also about everything Lee has been saying for forty years. It’s also funny and funky in the way his best films are. Lee’s angry, but he balances it with having a blast getting you, and himself, riled up. No other filmmaker on Earth could have told this story this way, making it so uniquely Spike.
7. Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee’s take on a mainstream thriller, Inside Man takes its familiar setup and twists and turns it inside out. As perfectly straightforward and compelling a thriller as it is, Lee takes a page out of the New York masters book à la Sidney Lumet, but also sets his bank heist flick right in the middle of his New York and has no problem letting Russell Gewirtz’s screenplay or his all-star lineup (which contains memorable turns from Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer) take over. But that also doesn’t mean Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique don’t provide plenty of crackerjack verve to help subvert the film’s pulpy trappings. (The film does get trapped a bit with some of its underdeveloped or a tad trimmable side-plots.) The film’s continually clever and stays quite smart with its genre signatures, all tinged in sociological backdrops and a tangy New York flavor that’s ultimately Lee’s special sauce of which he coats each minute of his runtime.
6. Crooklyn (1994)
Spike’s reminiscence on youth is often like childhood itself: messy, unstructured, and saved from spiraling into total chaos by its parent characters (Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo). Crooklyn is haunted by the ghosts of worry-free playtime, lost innocence, and the random details that remain stuck in memory until one is old enough to process them correctly. Written by Lee and two of his sisters, Joie and Cinqué Lee, the film often feels like a family conversation where stories from the past are recalled and disputed, modulating from heavy to light, from angry to lyrical, it’s essentially an emotional symphony.
5. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Both of Lee’s films since the election of Donald Trump have been sprawling, urgent, uncompromising and jampacked. This two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute massive swing for the fences is assuredly one of Spike’s most ambitious as it’s basically six movies in one: a heist movie, war epic, nostalgic ensemble drama, tragic character study, mournful political polemic, and shoot ’em up thriller. And the result is often breathtaking to watch, whether it be for Delroy Lindo’s incredible performance to the heaping thematic heft of the material to moments of emotional transcendence. The ambition and scope is often staggering, and it remains remarkable, after forty years of making movies, that Lee can maintain this level of energy and passion. And for this he uncompromisingly wrestles with the specters of the past and present, crafting a stirring, anguished, funny, and violent excursion into the dark, rotting pit that is America’s heart.
4. Bamboozled (2000)
Centered on a TV writer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who’s upset with his horrible, racist boss (Michael Rapaport) after he askes him to pitch and make more “Black” stuff for their channel, Pierre then pitches an idea so ludicrous that he hopes it gets him fired. That idea is the “New Millennium Minstrel Show” and to Pierre’s shock it becomes a nationwide success. As you might be able to tell, Bamboozled is Spike Lee at his most confrontational and angry, as he takes his often funny, frequently intense satire and examines the past, present, and future of racism and the dehumanization of black people throughout American pop culture and entertainment. And through that Lee daringly provokes the creators and consumers alike of such culture and entertainment, and develops a deeply lacerating indictment towards them — delivering a film that has gotten and stayed only more damning and relevant ever since its release.
3. 25th Hour (2002)
It was, in fact, happenstance that Spike happened to be just about ready to start filming of David Benioff’s novel right after 9/11, but no filmmaker could have done better at capturing the sense of loss and weary finality that this wounded city continued to feel for years afterward. The story of a convicted drug dealer (a never better Edward Norton) coming to terms with his life right before heading off for a seven-year prison sentence is spiritual and philosophical in a way Lee has rarely allowed his films to be; it’s elegiac and sad and yet strong in way that make this Lee’ perfect New York film and the essential post-9/11 movie.
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Throughout his career, Spike Lee has had several ambitious unmade dream projects — biopics about Jackie Robinson and James Brown, a last minute cancelled L.A. Riots film — but the one that came to fruition, the one made at the height of his powers, was Malcolm X, a grand scape epic done Spike Lee style. Over its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character (played by a career-best Denzel Washington), and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, the film also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining, full of some of Lee’s most masterful set pieces. Spike Lee would never have a project with this epic of scope and budget again (with maybe Da 5 Bloods getting the closest), and it’s Malcolm X that’s a vivid example of why that’s a damn shame.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
In his diary on Christmas morning in 1987, Spike Lee jotted down his ideas for his next movie: “I want the film to take place over the course of one day, the hottest day of the year, in Brooklyn, New York … The film has to look hot, too. The audience should feel like it’s suffocating, like In the Heat of the Night.” Beyond its other notable achievements, Do the Right Thing is a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in the late-eighties Bed-Stuy at a time of escalating racial tension in the city. But the film’s precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would have meant nothing without Lee’s wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as common place as the local pizzeria. More than twenty years later, it still remains an uncontestable masterpiece carrying a “Wake Up!” call and disruptive slap to shake all its complacent audience members that sadly still need it today.