The 5 Best Spike Lee Films You Haven't (Yet) Seen
Explore more of the great American filmmaker's work with this critic-picked watchlist
En español | So you want to be a Spike Lee completist? And why not? When it comes to engaging the Black — and therefore deeply American — experience, the Brooklyn-born director is among the most relevant filmmakers of the 20th century. The Library of Congress’ measure for inclusion in the National Film Registry is that a film has historical, cultural, aesthetic significance; that it be worthy of preservation. In December, Lee's She's Gotta Have It joined Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and 4 Little Girls (his documentary about the domestic terrorist bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.), on the registry.
Those are titles irrefutably touted on top 10 lists of his work. Others — Inside Man, 25th Hour and Jungle Fever — are routinely ranked high. All exemplify Lee's deft generosity with actors: new (Tisha Campbell in School Daze), established (Denzel Washington in He Got Game) or seemingly revealed for the first time (Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever). He's been on an artistic roll recently with BlacKkKlansman (the screenplay garnered him his first Oscar) and Da 5 Bloods on Netflix. American Utopia, his documenting of the Broadway musical that David Byrne brought to such timely life, is due out in October. Before that, here are five Lee films streaming now to add to your watchlist.
School Daze (1988)
Long before being “woke” became a thing, antiapartheid activist Dap (Laurence Fishburne) summons his fellow students and school administrators to the central lawn of Mission University (a fictional historically Black college) on the Sunday morning of Homecoming Weekend and admonishes the crowd to “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” Lee, a Morehouse man, plays the too servile fraternity pledge Half-Pint. Giancarlo Esposito brings indelible edge and arrogance as Julian, head of Gamma Phi Gamma. It is a tale of near-fratricidal (pun intended) conflict between Wannabees and Jigaboos, Dap and Julian. This quasi-musical brims with ridiculously fun scenes that pose still-pointed questions about the varieties of blackness and community. West Side Story is famously teased in the number “Good and Bad Hair,” a face-off set in a hair salon.
Watch it here: Amazon Prime, Google Play
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The opening credits mimic crime scene photos with uncanny, still-devastating vividness. Lee adapted, with novelist Richard Price, the latter's drama about young, drug slingers — “clockers” — in the hood. A local drug dealer, played with charismatic force by Delroy Lindo, asks Strike (Mekhi Phifer) to shoot a dealer who is stealing from him. Strike's brother confesses to the hit. But Harvey Keitel's detective isn't buying. Not one to exploit the gangsta genre, Lee's contributions here are nuanced and peppered with thoughts about family, those of blood and those forged, the true and exploited. The cast is first rate: Isaiah Washington as Strike's sibling and Regina Taylor as a mom trying to keep her young son from falling in with the crew, underscore what's at stake in a community flooded with drugs.
Watch it here: YouTube, Amazon Prime
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When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Keeping the promise of its title, Lee's documentary — made for HBO — delivers the mournful, as well as the scathing, in this Emmy-winning miniseries about the ravaging of New Orleans due in part to Hurricane Katrina, but even more to the failings to address the vulnerabilities of the levee system because the predominantly Black denizens of that great American city didn't rate.
Watch it here: Hulu
Vulgar? Well, yeah. After all this R-rated comedy relocates Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — about women withholding sex from their warring menfolk — to modern day Chicago's South Side. Vintage Lee? Not quite, but the satire wrestles with the machismo of gun culture and the mayhem it brings. (Then Chi-town mayor Rahm Emanuel petitioned the director to change the name; Lee didn't.) Samuel L. Jackson plays a dandified Greek chorus of one. Wesley Snipes is in rare — oh, so missed — form as Cyclops, a drug lord. And as is Lee's gift, he boasts and boosts a mighty fine performance by a newcomer: Teyonah Parris, playing the strategic and fierce hero of the title.
Watch it here: Amazon Prime, YouTube
RELATED: Do the Right Thing left an unforgettable imprint on the culture of the 1980s, so it's easy to see how it made our critic's list of the best films of the decade. Curious about what else made the cut? Check out the whole list, here: The 20 Most Awesome Movies of the ‘80s
Pass Over (2018)
This is but one example of Lee's penchant for celebrating (or, in the word of the moment, “amplifying") another artist's gifts. Lee traveled to Chicago to film Steppenwolf Theatre's searing production of playwright Antoinette Nwandu's drama. (Danya Taymor directed the play.) Blistering and witty performances by Jon Michael Hill as Moses and Julian Parker as Kitch put a touching twist on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Lee employs the camera in ways that add tenderness and edge while never overpowering the characters’ profound wordplay — or repressing the fact he's filming a play. A sparingly used gaze out at the riveted and predominantly Black audience — a rarity in American theater — adds an extra layer of meaning.
Watch it here: Amazon Prime