New Year and this time I’ve decided to commit to doing more Top 10 posts on various directors, actors and actresses, rather than going through one persons entire filmography and ranking it (like I did for Danny Boyle but if I were to do it for Samuel L. Jackson we’d be here till 2020 typing it up!).
Up first is a man that was born in Atlanta, Georgia on the 20th March 1957, graduated from the New York University Film School in 1982 and made his directorial feature debut in 1986. Since then he’s gone on to direct numerous features and documentaries, earn two Academy Award nominations and after making films for over thirty years, he’s still going strong with his most recent film, BlacKkKlansman, being in awards seasons contention this year.
Without delay, here’s my top 10 favourite Spike Lee films.
10. Chi-Raq (2015)
A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago, Illinois.
With Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott giving us a modern spin to Aristophanes’ classic Greek play Lysistrata, we’re presented the backdrop of gang violence Chicago’s Southside as a war between two gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, leading to the tragic death of a young child being caught in the crossfires by a stray bullet. Lysistrata, the lover of one of the gang leaders, grows disillusioned by the violence surrounding the neighbourhood and with the death of a young child being the last straw, she decides to gather the Spartans’ lovers and the Trojans’ lovers to commit to a sex strike until the men agree to lay down arms. Spike Lee is at his best when he always has something to say and for better or worse, you can’t deny that his singular vision with Chi-Raq is ambitious, vibrant, riotous and significant in how he gets his points across. rom the opening credits with Nick Cannon singing ‘Pray 4 My City’ to bold red lyrical text, to Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolemedes popping up every once and a while, the film may go bonkers at times but it oddly remains coherent. Teyonah Parris gives a great lead performance as Lysistrata, Nick Cannon gives his best performance in a film (in my opinion) playing the role of Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree, Samuel L. Jackson has an absolute field day with the dialogue he gets to chew on as Dolemedes and John Cusack gets a monologue-heavy scene stealer as Father Mike Corridan.
09. Clockers (1995)
Young drug pushers in the projects of Brooklyn live hard dangerous lives, trapped between their drug bosses and the detectives out to stop them.
A film adaptation of Richard Price’s novel of the same name, Martin Scorsese was originally set to direct, but he opted to direct Casino instead and asked Spike Lee if he wanted to direct Clockers. Lee agreed and one notable difference was made to the film, which was that the main character would be Strike, rather than Detective Rocco Klein, as originally intended. We focuses on a group of clockers, street-level drug dealers, working in the area of a housing project in Brooklyn, New York for local drug lord Rodney Little. Strike wants to get off the benches and Rodney is willing to give him that….if he takes out Ahab’s worker Daryl Adams. While the film might create the mystery angle around the who shot Daryl Adams and why, we also focus on life in the drug game and how it effects those involved, specifically young black men. This is effectively showcased immediately in the films opening credits of photographs of violently murdered young black men. One of the films more distressing scenes is seeing how emotionless we can become to violence, as a few cops circle Darryl Adams’ dead body, cracking jokes about the state of the deceased. At one point, when you are involved in a life surrounded by drugs and guns, become devoid of caring about every single life lost? Mekhi Phifer was given his breakout role of this film and gives a solemn performance as Strike, a young man that’s physically and mentality exhausted of being trapped in this world of drugs and crime. Harvey Keitel is also great as Rocco Klein, a Detective that has the case solved with Isaiah Washington’s Victor Dunham confessing to the murder, but he has many questions that he wants answered that he feels more like a case of earning personal satisfaction than fighting for justice. Delroy Lindo is also really good as Rodney Little, a drug boss that seduces these young men with status and money to work for him. There’s some memorable scenes here, particularly in the way that they’re shot and lit, and it’s the interrogation-heavy monologue from Harvey Keitel towards the end of the film that’s the icing on the cake. A criminally underrated crime drama.
08. Summer of Sam (1999)
Spike Lee’s take on the “Son of Sam” murders in New York City during the summer of 1977 centering on the residents of an Italian-American Northeast Bronx neighborhood who live in fear and distrust of one another.
Summer of Sam is a drama that doesn’t focus on the subject matter, David Berkowitz (whose also known as the .44 Caliber Killer and later Son of Sam), but rather the locals in the community of the Bronx neighbourhood during the summer of 1977, where a growing sense of paranoia leads to residents starting to gather a mob to take matters into their own hands of capturing the Son of Sam and soon enough everyone that is slightly different from their definition of the norm becomes a suspect. We mainly focus on the friendship between Vinny and Ritchie, as well as their relationships with their spouses, Vinny’s wife Dionna and Ritchie’s girlfriend Ruby. The neighbourhood is threatened by the presence of the Son of Sam that the unfaithful Vinny believes it’s a sign from of God over his adultery that he survived a potential death by the killer and we see it from the first scene in the nightclub to when he and Dionna return it has barely a dozen people inside. The film is overflowing with lust, heat and steam, well shot and has a great ensemble involved. John Leguizamo gives a fierce performance as Vinny, Mira Sorvino balances vulnerability and sternness as Dionna, while Adrien Brody and Jennifer Esposito have terrific chemistry together as Ritichie and Ruby. Of the other supporting cast, I did enjoy Michael Rispoli as Joey T.
07. He Got Game (1998)
A basketball player’s father must try to convince him to go to a college so he can get a shorter sentence.
He Got Game is a sports drama that focuses on the pressures of being the nation’s best High School basketball player, the wheeling and dealings that goes into colleges trying to recruit a prospect, but what the film is also about is a heartbreaking drama about a father and a son. While Jesus Shuttlesworth is being hounded by the top colleges in the nation, his father Jake is doing time for the manslaughter of his wife (a lot more complicated than it sounds) and is given a proposition…get temporarily released to convince his son to sign for the Governor’s college and, if success, earn himself an early release from prison. I think He Got Game is a great look into the temptations that young basketball players have to deal with upon the High School to College stage, with Jesus being offered cars, money, jewellery, and also the pressures of those around him over his choice that can shape his future, particularly from Uncle Bubba and his girlfriend Lala. The dynamic on screen between Denzel Washington and Ray Allen as father and son, with Jake showing his son more patience than he did before he went to prison as to try to earn his way back into Jesus’s life and the final scene is a poetic end note to a very good film that’s supported by a solid soundtrack.
06. Inside Man (2006)
A police detective, a bank robber, and a high-power broker enter high-stakes negotiations after the criminal’s brilliant heist spirals into a hostage situation.
Inside Man lets us enter a situation where a gang enter a Manhattan bank, lock the doors and take hostages. Detective Frazier is assigned to be the negotiator at the bank, but half his mind is occupied with corruption charges that he is facing. The bank’s president however brings in a high-power broker, named Madaline, in to secure a safe despot box. High-stakes negotiations among the thief, the cop and the power-broke begin as one tries to get the upper hand on the other. Inside Man gives us on the surface what appears to be a standard heist film, but pretty soon there appears to be more going on that we originally seem. Spike Lee directs his most ‘commercial’ film to date, bringing us some great shots with his trademarks styles balancing the events of the heist with interviews with the hostages after the event, trying to figure out who was behind the robbery and adding some humour to proceedings. Denzel Washington is as good as always as Detective Frazier, a cop who reads the robbers intentions better than he gets credit for from his peers but doesn’t go unnoticed by the mastermind of the robbery Dalton played by a charismatic Clive Owen. Inside man doesn’t play the conventional heist film rules and still find it entertaining after multiple viewings.
05. Get On The Bus (1996)
A disparate group of African-American men travel by bus to Washington, DC for the Million Man March.
Get On The Bus follows fifteen African-American men boarding a bus in Los Angeles that’ll makes its way to Washington DC for their destination: the Million Man March. Get On The Bus is a Spike Lee joint that was shot in a few weeks that happens to be one of the best films of his that you may never checked out, a timeless social commentary on not only on Black America, but some of the social issues raised here can easily be relevant to all races, as once the men enter the bus and travel the long road ahead to the other side of the country, topical issues such as religion, family, misogyny, homosexuality, race and politics come into play. It helps that the film has a complex group of characters, such as egotistical hotshot homophobic actor Flip, Gary who is a cop that works in South Central and of light-skin complexion, Randall and Kyle as a gay couple in midst of a separation, a young naive film student named Xavier, attending to film the March for his school project and of course we have father and son Evan Thomas Sr and Junior (prefers Smooth), with the son having to be ‘chained’ to his father by court order, the irony of arriving in chains to attend the Million Man March is not lost on the others. The film doesn’t challenge you to question whose right or whose wrong, especially as we don’t/won’t learn the aftermath of when they return to their homes after the Million Man March, making it possible for people to empathise with almost every character. The acting is really good in the film, most notably standing out would be Andre Braugher as ‘Hollywood’ Flip, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and De’Aundre Bonds as the uneasy relationship pairing of father and son and of course Ossie Davis as Jeremiah. The film raises questions and issues that any human being can address and bring into question of respecting our fellow human being.
04. 25th Hour (2002)
Cornered by the DEA, convicted New York drug dealer Montgomery Brogan reevaluates his life in the 24 remaining hours before facing a seven-year jail term.
25th Hour focuses on the final day of freedom that Monty Brogan will have as tomorrow morning he’ll be turning himself in to begin a seven year prison term and to his close friends, girlfriend and father, they believe this will be the last day that they’ll spend with Monty as they’ll never see him again. Sure one of them believes he’ll come out of prison alive but the others believe he won’t be the same man they’ve known since they were kids. Monty himself even believes that’ll all end after tonight as the fear sets in of what outcome to expect going in on his first day in prison. It takes a special kind of performance to make you feel sympathetic towards Monty’s downfall, considering that he is a drug dealer, but he’s an intelligent character that knows deep down that he got too greedy for his own good by staying in the drug dealing business for as long as he did, Edward Norton is terrific in the role and his characters turmoils are summed up in the one scene, in the toilet, where his mirror self begins to launch a blistering attack on everyone until he finally blames himself for his failings. The rest of the cast provide good performances also with Rosario Dawson as girlfriend Naturelle, who may or may not be the reason that Monty is going to prison in the first place, Barry Pepper as Frank who seems to have wandering eyes for Naturelle, Philip Seymour Hoffman as English teacher Jacob who seems a nice guy and happens to be fascinated by one of his students Mary, played by Anna Paquin, who boldly flirts with him. It’s a very monologue heavy film of Monty’s failings that have put him down the road he’s going on as well as the friends and family around him beginning to question their own failings towards Monty for letting him lead the life he ended up going toward and the film is shot brilliantly by Spike Lee, particularly the haunting opening title credits of the 9/11 ‘Tribute in Light’ art installation placed next to the site of the World Trade Centre, creating two vertical columns of light.
03. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader.
With the right material Spike Lee can make a film that can better your favourite director’s and with BlacKkKlansman this film marks his best feature, for me at least, since Inside Man, and just as powerful and timely as his earlier films Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing. The true story of Ron Stallworth infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan is at times comedic here but it’s more do to with how extraordinary this whole story is that not only did this undercover cop convince that he was a a white, racist anti-semite, but the fact that it worked (hence the use of some real-life images here and there to confirm the stories credibility). John David Washington gives a nuance and charismatic performance as Ron Stallworth and deserves all the praise he’s getting and I hope gets rewarded for it come award season, whilst Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman bounces perfectly off Washington’s Stallworth, bringing depth as the ‘public half’ of the Stallworth character during the Ku Klux Klan meetings. In terms of supporting performances, Topher Grace as the grand wizard David Duke will be the most memorable as it’s Eric Forman as the head of the KKK, but it was Jasper Pääkkönen that impressed me out of the supporting cast as Felix Kendrickson.
02. Malcolm X (1992)
Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X is a film with a lot of love and respect put into it, from the costume and set designs to the films over all run time in order to cover the life of young Malcolm Little leading up to him becoming Malcolm X. The film is set in three stages, beginning with us seeing Malcolm as a small-time gangster, preferred to being called Red. It’s instantly noticeable the stylistic changes that progresses as Red becomes Malcolm X through the course of the film, starting off in almost blindingly colourful suits and with a long (and well choreographed) dance number before the colours and fun times shift into a more serious and less colourful tone as the film progresses. Spike Lee gives us a multi-layered perspective of Malcolm where some may come in expecting a character to attack them throughout than the media image of that time suggests, showing a man whose experiences and motives make him understandable who then softens his beliefs after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Denzel Washington gives a terrific performance as Malcolm X, eventually getting lost in the role as he transforms into Malcolm X from Malcolm Little, a truly powerful performance in which he earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor (losing out to Al Pacino’s performance in Scent of A Woman….as much as I love Al Pacino, I’d argue the case that Denzel’s performance would be my choice that year) with a great supporting cast with Angela Bassett as Betty, Malcolm’s warm and intelligent wife, Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad balancing the fine line of the man’s importance to Malcolm as well as his flaws, Albert Hall as Baines, the man who takes a young Malcolm in prison under his watch to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and becoming jealous of Malcolm’s power within the movement and even Delroy Lindo’s character West Indian Archie makes a fine impression on his power when he’s younger to moving him at his most vulnerable when he’s older. With these great performances and a well crafted piece of film, Spike Lee has brought us one of the best biographical films ever made.
01. Do The Right Thing (1989)
On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone’s hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence.
Banging straight on to the sound of Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ with Rosie Perez dancing on screen, we’re treated to Spike Lee’s greatest film (in my opinion) of the essential calm before the storm of tensions rising between the local residents and an Italian-American family within the neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer. Here Lee creates a film about race in America where no sides are taken, there’s points and actions made in the film that are later contradicted (no better told than using the two quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at the films end) and it’s safe to ask that over twenty-five years later, how much have we really changed? And with the films title, did anyone truly do the right thing? There’s scenes here that people can debate over that question, particularly the films final act reaching a terrifying and horrific moment leading to the bubbling hatred reaching the surface.The acting across the board is great, especially Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and also Danny Aiello who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance as Sal. It’s amazing how thirty years on, Do The Right Thing feels as relevant as ever.
That’s my personal choices for the Top 10 Spike Lee films. Is there anything you would remove from the list? Which Spike Lee film would you take out and add in? Which Spike Lee film is your favourite? Answer in the poll and comment section below.