After more than 30 years behind the camera, Spike Lee remains one of the most provocative filmmakers working. His latest examination of American racism, “BlacKkKlansman,” has gotten some of the best reviews of his career. How does it compare to the rest of his filmography? Tour through our photo gallery above of Lee’s 15 greatest films ranked from worst to best.
Lee debuted with the independent breakout hit “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), made when he was just 29 years old. The film helped usher in a new era of black cinema, paving the way for the likes of John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), and Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) to make a variety of films about the African American experience.
He earned his first Oscar nomination three years later: Best Original Screenplay for “Do the Right Thing” (1989). His second Oscar nomination came in the Best Documentary category for “4 Little Girls” (1997), which recounts the notorious racial terrorist bombing of an African American church during the Civil Rights Movement. The film also contended at the Emmys for Best Non-Fiction Special. Lee later won Emmys for Best Non-Fiction Directing and Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking for his four hour Hurricane Katrina opus “When the Levees Broke” (2007). He was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his career in 2016.
15. SUMMER OF SAM (1999)
New York City has always been a major asset in Lee’s filmmaking, and in “Summer of Sam,” he recounts the panic and terror that gripped the Big Apple during the 1977 killing spree of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. He focuses a group of Italian Americans living in the Bronx looking for a scapegoat, settling on an eccentric punk rocker (Adrien Brody). As he did in “Do the Right Thing,” Lee shows how anger and distrust can tear a neighborhood apart and lead to tragedy.
14. CHI-RAQ (2015)
With “Chi-Raq,” Lee turns a sad and angry eye towards gun violence with this modern day update of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play “Lysistrata.” In Chicago’s Southside, two rival gangs — the Trojans and the Spartans — are at war. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), girlfriend of Trojan leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), decides to take matters into her own hands to stop the violence by enlisting her fellow women to withhold sex from every man in the city.
13. SCHOOL DAZE (1988)
Lee followed up the breakout success of “She’s Gotta Have It” with this lively movie musical. The film follows several undergraduates at an historically black college in Atlanta, GA, including Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne), an activist leading anti-apartheid demonstrations against the faculty; and his cousin Half-Pint (Lee), an unpopular freshman desperate to join a fraternity.
12. JUNGLE FEVER (1991)
“Jungle Fever” refers to interracial relationships based in stereotypes, and in telling this story about a married black architect (Wesley Snipes) having an affair with an Italian secretary (Annabella Sciorra), Lee asks many provocative questions about the myths surrounding different races in the bedroom. Yet it’s best remembered for Samuel L. Jackson’s fearless performance as the architect’s crack-addicted brother Gator.
11. CROOKLYN (1994)
One of Lee’s most personal films, “Crooklyn” dramatizes the life of an African American family in 1970s Brooklyn. Alfre Woodard gives one of her best performances as Carolyn, a school teacher struggling to get by with her jazz musician husband (Delroy Lindo) and five children. The real standout is Zelda Harris as Troy, the young daughter, who quietly observes the economic and racial injustices surrounding her.
10. HE GOT GAME (1998)
On paper, “He Got Game” sounds pretty ridiculous: a man convicted of killing his wife (Denzel Washington) is released from prison for a week so he can convince his son (Ray Allen), a talented basketball prospect, to play for the state’s governor’s alma matter in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Yet Lee turns this into a powerful father-son drama with knockout performances by Washington and real life NBA star Allen. It’s also an unsentimental examination of how the pros chew up and spit out aspiring young athletes.
9. BAMBOOZLED (2000)
When “Bamboozled” was first released, critics and audiences didn’t know quite what to make of it. Shot on Mini DV camcorders, the film stars Damon Wayans as a frustrated African American TV writer who hopes to get out of his contract by creating the most offensive show possible: a modern day minstrel show featuring black actors in blackface. Yet like “Springtime for Hitler,” it becomes a huge hit. Viewers found it equal parts offensive, sloppy, and brilliant.
8. INSIDE MAN (2006)
Genre fare isn’t the first thing you expect from Lee, yet “Inside Man” proves him to be a master of meat and potatoes filmmaking. In their fourthcollaboration, Denzel Washington plays a New York City detective who must negotiate with a bank robber (Clive Owen) when his brilliantly-planned heist turns into a hostage situation. Yet a high-stakes broker (Jodie Foster) with a vested interest in the bank’s chairman (Christopher Plummer) makes things a little more complicated.
7. SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986)
Lee burst onto the scene at just 29-years-old with this black-and-white indie comedy about a young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) romancing three men (Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Lee). Shot with a shoestring budget in just 12 days on location in Brooklyn, the film announced Lee as a major directorial talent, winning him First Filmmaker prizes at Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards.
6. BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)
Lee’s liveliest effort in years is this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction saga about how black police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the local charter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white officer (Adam Driver). Though set in the 1970s, “BlacKkKlansman” draws unmistakable parallels to today’s America, particularly in its shattering final scene. The film is bracingly funny and biting in its social commentary, and it’s also a surprisingly entertaining buddy cop thriller to boot.
5. CLOCKERS (1995)
“Clockers” is one of those rare movies that’s about two things at once. On the one hand, this adaptation of Richard Price’s novel is a gripping crime thriller about a street-level drug pusher (Mekhi Phifer) who becomes entangled in a murder investigation led by two New York City police detectives (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro). At the same time, it’s a thought-provoking look at the devastating effects of the drug trade on the African American community.
4. 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997)
Lee scored Oscar and Emmy bids for this powerful documentary about the 1963 murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Using photographs, home movies, and interviews with family and friends, Lee brings the girls back to life and hints at the lives they could’ve led. At the same time, he paints a portrait of the racial tensions that erupted into the Civil Rights movement, speaking with several key figures including former Alabama governor and avowed segregationist George Wallace.
3. 25TH HOUR (2002)
“25th Hour” was the first film Lee made after 9/11, and the loss and devastation of that day permeates throughout his adaptation of David Benioff’s novel. Edward Norton stars as Monty Brogan, a convicted drug dealer tying up loose ends before going to prison for seven years. Throughout the course of one day, he comes to terms with his past mistakes and the relationships with his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), his best friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper), and his father (Brian Cox).
2. MALCOLM X (1992)
“Malcolm X’s” journey to the screen is almost as dramatic as the film itself. Lee took the film over from Norman Jewison, saying a black filmmaker would be better suited to tell the story; he publicly feuded with Warner Bros, who didn’t want the biographical drama to be too long and expensive; and after the movie was taken away from him during editing, Lee reached out to prominent African Americans to raise the money needed to finish it. The effort was worth it. Denzel Washington gives the performance of a lifetime as the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his days as a smalltime street hustler to his rise as a minister in the Nation of Islam.
1. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Lee’s masterpiece remains an electrifying look at American racism. Set on the hottest day of the year, “Do the Right Thing” examines how hatred and bigotry boils over in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Lee is at the center of a large ensemble as Mookie, an African American delivery boy for the neighborhood pizzeria owned by Italian American Sal (Danny Aiello). Tensions rise when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) asks why the walls of Sal’s Famous are covered only with photos of prominent Italians when the majority of his customers are black. It all culminates in the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) at the hands of the police and the destruction of the pizzeria.