Lee Got Game
"What's the difference between Hollywood characters and my characters?" Spike Lee once said. "Mine are real." And the same can be said about the best of his movies. Here, for Lee's birthday, are the Top 15, starting with his biographical masterpiece.
1. "Do the Right Thing" (1989)
Lee's breakout feature—the story of a Brooklyn neighborhood's simmering racial tension—was ahead of its time, prompting a national conversation about race three years before the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles took center stage. With a cast that includes Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, JohnTurturro and Lee himself in the central role, "Do the Right Thing" is a boiling cauldron of a movie as relevant today as it was when it hit theaters almost 30 years ago.
2. "Malcolm X" (1992)
Denzel Washington should've won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his incendiary performance as the controversial civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1965. Lee's extraordinary epic was hailed as "one of the great screen biographies" by critic Roger Ebert. "The film is inspirational and educational—and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else."
3. "Crooklyn" (1994)
Not only one of Lee's best films, it's arguably one of the best films of the1990s. A semi-autobiographical portrait of a school teacher (Alfre Woodard), her jazz musician husband (Delroy Lindo) and their five kids living in 1973 Brooklyn, "Crooklyn" is a poignant look at ordinary black family life. "I just wanted to tell the story of this young girl who was coming of age during that time," Lee said of the PG-13 heartwarmer suitable for the entire family. "And also to show an African-American family that was not dysfunctional; that was headed by two parents."
4. "She’s Gotta Have It" (1986)
Lee was 29 when he caught the attention of audiences and critics alike with his first feature film, the story of a young African-American woman and her three very different lovers, including Lee in his now signature character of Mars Blackmon. Now recognized as a landmark of black filmmaking, Lee shot "She's Gotta Have It" in 12 days on a meager budget of $175,000. His career-long examination of race, sexuality and class are on display in a way that other directors have yet to match. Lee revisited the film that launched his career by adapting it into a well-received comedy/drama on Netflix in 2017.
5. "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006)
In addition to writing, directing and sometimes starring in feature films, Lee has distinguished himself as a documentary filmmaker with, among other titles, "4 Little Girls," "Jim Brown: All American" and "Bad 25." But arguably Lee's best work in this category is his ripped-from-the-headlines HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans in 2005. With an investigative journalist's tenacity and an advocate's fervor, Lee tracks down and interviews a myriad of people who were central to the disaster and affected by it. At four hours long, "When the Levees Broke" is a riveting examination of what went wrong and the negligence, incompetence and racism that made this unnatural disaster even worse.
6. "Bamboozled" (2000)
This satire, starring Damon Wayans as a TV executive who produces a wildly successful modern-day blackface minstrel show, is Lee's boldest movie—and his biggest box-office bomb. But it proved that Lee was not afraid to get into an audience's face when the subject is race in America.
7. "Jungle Fever" (1991)
Lee takes on the taboo subject of interracial relationships, examining the fallout that occurs when a married black man (Wesley Snipes) and a white woman (Annabella Sciorra) begin an affair despite the objections of their friends. The film also features a breakout performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Snipes' crackhead brother. "I understood the nature of the disease," said Jackson, who had spent time in rehab. "I had done the research. So that film was my breakthrough. That got me into Hollywood. It was the perfect marriage of experience and opportunity."
8. "School Daze" (1988)
Lee's second film won over moviegoers with its comedic yet uncompromising look at a group of undergraduates at a historically all-black university. "School Daze" explored subjects within the black community that had rarely if ever been addressed on screen before, such as dark vs. light skin and straightened vs. natural hair. Critic Roger Ebert praised the film as "one of the most honest and revealing movies I've ever seen about modern middle-class black life in America."
9. "25th Hour" (2002)
Filmed in New York in the wake of 9/11, this film chronicles a drug dealer's (Edward Norton) last day of freedom before he heads to prison. One of Lee's most introspective and cerebral movies, it landed on many critics "Best" lists, with one calling it "as much an urban historical document as Rossellini's 'Open City,' filmed in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Rome." Said Lee: "I could not live with myself, being a New Yorker, if I shot this film after 9/11 and went about my business like nothing ever happened."
10. "Summer of Sam" (1999)
With the character of serial killer David Berkowitz, a.k.a. "The Son of Sam," appearing only briefly, Lee's feverish movie focuses primarily on the lives of several friends in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx during the summer of 1977, when even the steam coming out of manholes seemed ominous. It's a disturbing but riveting Scorsese-influenced take on paranoia run rampant, featuring early star turns by Adrien Brody and John Leguizamo.
11. "Inside Man" (2006)
Lee takes on the conventional crime thriller for his fourth collaboration with Denzel Washington in a bank heist tale that became one of the director's biggest commercial successes. Also featuring Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, "Inside Man" is slick and fast-paced, with Lee proving that he can produce pure movie entertainment with the best of them.
12. "Red Hook Summer" (2012)
Financed by Lee himself, "Red Hook Summer" was made in three weeks on a small budget, guerrilla-style. It's the intimate coming-of-age story of a middle-class boy from Atlanta who spends a summer with his preacher grandfather in the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The film received only a limited release, but Lee clearly reveled in this return to his indie roots.
13. "He Got Game" (1998)
A lifelong New York Knicks fan, Lee wrote and directed this love letter to basketball—and addressed the sport's inherent corruption. Denzel Washington plays the ex-con whose son (NBA star Ray Allen) is a top-ranked high school prospect. "I always enjoy working with Spike and filming in New York as well," Washington said. "What it's all about is putting yourself in different environments and circumstances, walking in the characters' shoes and trying to find some truth in it."
14. "4 Little Girls" (1997)
This searing documentary details the 1963 bombing that killed four African-American girls in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. Lee is unflinching in his straight-up look at American racism. It is a haunting film that earned Lee an Oscar nomination.
15. "Clockers" (1995)
The hard-boiled crime thriller starring Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo and Mekkhi Phifer is based on Richard Price's bestselling novel about a street-level drug dealer who gets entangled in a murder investigation. Told in a series of hot flashes, the stylish film still crackles with energy.
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