Spike Lee has been making movies for more than 30 years now, racking up some two dozen feature credits leading up to the release of “BlackKklansman” this weekend.
And I’m happy to say: I knew him when. Way back at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, I was approached by an aggressive PR rep to cover the first feature by a director he identified as “the black Jim Jarmusch” — a promising up-and-comer named Spike Lee. The description was intriguing, but the film itself, “She’s Gotta Have It,” is what really made me take notice. Decades later, I’m still following the career of the young upstart who has aged gracefully into grey eminence without any diminution of his willingness to take risks, or his ability to surprise and provoke. Of his several exceptional films, these are the ones I would select as his ten best.
10. Jungle Fever (1991)
Call it a double feature mashup within a single movie, and you won’t be far off the mark. There really are two storylines vying for attention in this sometimes amusing, sometimes angry and always enthralling drama — and while the transitions between the two aren’t always smooth, the bumps seldom impede the pace of the wild ride. One thread deals with the interracial affair between a married African-American architect (Wesley Snipes) and an Italian-American temp secretary (Annabella Sciorra), a doomed relationship that Lee hints may be driven more by curiosity than passion. The other thread focuses on the architect’s drug-addicted brother (played, brilliantly, by Samuel L. Jackson), whose downward spiral takes him to an inner-city inferno described, not imprecisely, as “the Trump Tower of crack dens.”
9. Crooklyn (1994)
At once street smart and sweetly sentimental, this warmly nostalgic coming-of-age drama could be described as a Spike Lee movie for people who normally dislike Spike Lee movies. Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant during the summer of 1973, it’s an episodic semi-autobiographical drama — Lee co-scripted with his bother Cinque Lee and sister Joie Lee — filled with scenes that have the unmistakable feel of incidents that, for better or worse, are deeply felt and vividly remembered. (The‘70s golden-oldies soundtrack pleasingly enhances the period atmosphere.) Alfre Woodard (as a dedicated schoolteacher) and Delroy Lindo (as a struggling musician) appear as the parents of the four young children who propel most of the interconnected plotlines. Their experiences and misadventures are all the more touching when you consider that, just five years earlier, Lee offered a far less rosy (and much bleaker) view of life in their neighborhood (“Do the Right Thing”) 16 years after the events of this film. As novelist L.P. Hartley once noted: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
8. 4 Little Girls (1997)
Lee received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this outstanding documentary, a richly detailed and profoundly moving account of a horrendous tragedy that proved to be a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement. On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. This was a hate crime, designed by militant racists to intimidate black churchgoers who were active in Birmingham’s racial equality campaign. But instead of short-circuiting the civil-rights protests, this cowardly act of terrorism had a galvanizing effect, largely because the explosion claimed four young victims: Carol Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14.
7. Inside Man (2006)
You want something mainstream? Hey, Lee’s got your mainstream, right here: A corking good caper-thriller with an abundance of memorable characters and clever plot twists, along with the tangy New York flavor that is Lee’s trademark special sauce. But wait, there’s more: An all-star lineup that includes Denzel Washington as an NYPD hostage negotiator dealing with gunmen who have taken control of a Manhattan bank; Clive Owen as the heist mastermind who turns out to be the title character in more ways than one; Christopher Plummer as the bank founder who has some dirty little secrets tucked away in the vault; and Jodie Foster as an aggressively glam and sensationally self-assured “fixer” who clashes with the negotiator while trying to protect the bank founder’s interests. Fun fact: “Inside Man” is the biggest box-office hit of Lee’s career. So far.
6. He Got Game (1998)
Lee rarely gets the respect he deserves as a director of not only individual actors but acting ensembles in his films. To fully appreciate his talent in this regard, take a look as this cumulatively affecting yet chronically underrated drama, in which Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted felon who gets a week off from prison — where he’s serving time for killing his wife — on the order of the governor, who wants Jake to convince his son Jesus (NBA star Ray Allen), the top-ranked college basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor’s alma mater. (If Jake succeeds, well, there may be a permanent early release in his future.) The father-and-son reunion doesn’t go smoothly (for a long time, it doesn’t go anywhere) and the dramatic tension is enhanced by Lee’s skillful balance of heartfelt performances by a seasoned pro (Washington) and a first-time moonlighter (Allen). And don’t overlook the fine supporting turn by Milla Jovovich, whose role as a put-upon prostitute in need of Jake’s help gives her more opportunities to demonstrate her acting chops than she’s had in all the “Resident Evil” flicks combined.
5. Malcolm X (1992)
After enduring the long months of pre-production controversy — some of it, but by no means all of it, generated by Lee himself — many critics approached this African-American epic with an attitude of, “OK, put up or shut up!” Lee responded by putting his movie where his mouth was, delivering the goods with a rich, rivetingly detailed character study of the man who sought to rebuild black pride “by any means necessary.” Neither a “Hoffa”-style deification nor a “JFK” -style expose, this is an audaciously old-fashioned, impressively multifaceted biographical drama. And lest we forget: In the title role, Denzel Washington firmly established himself as one of the leading actors — if not the leading actor — of his generation.
4. Clockers (1995)
The title refers to low-level drug dealers, but Lee’s film (an artful and intelligent compression of Richard Price’s lengthy novel) stands far apart from conventional dramas about cops, criminals, and inner-city life and death. There are four central characters: a hard-bitten cop (Harvey Keitel) who wants to do the right thing, anything, before retirement; an avuncular drug lord (Delroy Lindo) who manipulates young “clockers” in his neighborhood with equal doses of charm and menace; and two brothers — an ambitious clocker (Mekhi Phifer) and a respectable family man (Isaiah Washington) — whose lives have taken radically different paths. Each man starts out firmly believing he’s the man of his fate. But in the course of “Clockers,” each must face the full extent of his self-delusion. How they come by this hard-won knowledge, and how they respond to it, is what gives this potent movie the stunning impact of a modern-day morality play.
3. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
It’s doubtful that even a filmmaker as audacious as Spike Lee would dare to invent the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, an Colorado Springs, Col. undercover cop who managed in the early 1970s to infiltrate a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, despite his being very seriously African-American. But Lee gives his own unmistakable stamp to Stallworth’s stranger-than-fiction story in a gobsmackingly entertaining movie that ranks among his all-time finest. In addition to showcasing most of his distinctive visual flourishes, “BlacKkKlansman” gives Lee the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to be rigorously specific about time (the ‘70s period flavor is well-nigh intoxicating) and brutally persuasive about the timeliness of past events that maybe aren’t really so past at all. At the heart of it all are two beautifully synched performances: John David Washington (son of Lee’s frequent collaborator, Denzel Washington) as Stallworth, who forges a connection with KKK recruiters (and Topher Grace’s David Duke) over the phone, and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, Stallworth’s partner, who pretends to be Stallworth during real-world interactions with the racist (and anti-Semitic) lowlifes.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
Lee’s furiously melancholy drama about life and dread in post-9/11 New York City details the final hours of freedom afforded Monty (Edward Norton), a once-promising young man who’s set to start serving a prison sentence for drug dealing the morning after he completes a series of farewell interactions with his anxious lover (Rosario Dawson), two old friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper) — who, truth to tell, aren’t entirely surprised that their feckless buddy is facing hard time — and his guilt-racked father (Brian Cox, who has one of the greatest final lines in all of film history). Monty is smart enough to acknowledge that he’s done some dumb and reckless things; for a long time, however, he wants to blame everyone (including, during one remarkable monologue, just about every demographic group in NYC) for his fate. Lee’s film, which hit theaters scarcely 15 month after the collapse of the Twin Towers, takes us back into a New York where memories of the 9/11 tragedy, and the paranoia it inspired, still hangs heavy in the air like a poisonous gas, subtly (and, sometimes, not-so-subtly) influencing people even as they go about their blinkered, self-absorbed lives. It takes a lot to wake some people up. Just ask Monty.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
To give you some idea of the megaton impact “Do the Right Thing” had back in the day: At the press conference immediately following its first screening at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Lee found himself fielding questions from skittish white journalists about whether such an incendiary movie might inflame U.S. racial tensions to the point of causing riots. Weeks later, more than a few critics and columnists echoed similar concerns as the film rolled out in North American theatrical release. (Spoiler alert: The riots didn’t happen.) Ironically — tragically — the most unsettling thing about Lee’s masterwork now is how relevant it remains, how immediate it feels, as bickering escalates into ugly confrontations, and long-simmering resentments reach the boiling point, during 24 fateful hours in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. And yes, it’s still a jolt to experience how the exuberant high spirits of the early scenes gradually give way to escalating dread as the movie darkens, then explodes. Nearly three decades after it first raised a ruckus, “Do the Right Thing” is still the real thing.