Lee made good on that possibility with 1989’s Do The Right Thing, his first masterpiece. Set over the course of one blistering hot summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Do The Right Thing stars Lee as a pizza-delivery guy who travels up and down the block, encountering friends, girlfriends, militants, drunks, racists, and thugs, as long-festering tensions and resentments bubble to the surface. Though shot on location, Do The Right Thing has a bright, colorful backlot look; and Lee’s vision of New York City at the end of the ’80s is similarly compressed and abstracted, touching on multiple hot-button issues without becoming an “issue” movie, per se. Lee’s more interested in creating a rich cinematic experience than in exposing racism, which makes Do The Right Thing a close cousin to She’s Gotta Have It in a lot of ways, complete with gorgeous sex scenes, dynamic music, and earthy comic relief. The difference is that all the eclectic expressionism culminates in a riot, in a sequence that builds with queasy inevitability, from shouting match to violence to police brutality to mayhem. Some cultural commentators at the time fretted that the movie itself would provoke violence among African-American audiences—a worry that probably says as much about the sorry state of race relations in 1989 as the entirety of Do The Right Thing did—but Lee got out in front of the controversy, fighting for his film even if that meant publicly criticizing Oscar voters and the Cannes jury for snubbing it. He turned what might’ve been a sparsely distributed low-budget drama into a must-see cultural event.


In the decades since, Lee has frequently been criticized for that aspect of his public persona: playing the agitator/pitchman on talk shows and at press junkets. But it’s fair to say that Lee wouldn’t have gotten his best movies made (and seen) if he hadn’t been so aggressive. For example, Lee and Ernest Dickerson had talked about making an epic film version of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X from the time they were students at NYU, and when Lee heard that Warner Bros. had a Malcolm X project in development, he waged a campaign in the media, insisting that only a black director could do the subject justice. Warner relented, but kept Lee on a tight budget, forcing the director to scramble to secure the funds to shoot Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca, and to get the time he and his editor Barry Alexander Brown needed to give the film its proper shape and pace. The result is a movie that covers the controversial Nation Of Islam leader from boyhood to his assassination, a movie that flawlessly combines the look and feel of the David Lean-style biopic with Warner gangster pictures and MGM musicals. Malcolm X also gives Denzel Washington his best role, allowing him to convey the oratorical fire that swayed millions, while still depicting Brother Malcolm as a man, with weaknesses and fears as well as strengths. Even aside from its content, Malcolm X is a powerhouse piece of cinema, serving as a culmination of everything Lee had done up to that point.

Post-Malcolm X, Lee worked smaller, in part because studios were wary of giving him such a big budget again, and in part because he’d expended a lot of energy and cashed in a lot of favors to get the movie he wanted onto the screen. But Lee kept his “by any means necessary” ethos in play, even if that meant shooting cheaply and quickly. In 1996, Lee shot Reggie Rock Bythewood’s script for Get On The Bus on video and in 16mm, for just a couple million dollars, bringing together some of the best African-American actors of the era—Andre Braugher, Gabriel Casseus, Charles S. Dutton, Harry Lennix, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce, Ossie Davis, and more—for a talky road-trip movie based on the previous year’s Million Man March. The march was intended to project an image of African-American men as responsible leaders—and to encourage those men to live up to that image—and Get On The Bus grapples openly with what it means to be a black man in the mid-’90s, as the characters argue with each other over their life choices and whether this march has any real meaning. Get On The Bus is blunter and less stylistically daring than She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X, but it’s every bit as urgent a piece of black history, taking the temperature of its times.


The same could be said of 2002’s 25th Hour, in that it also intended to capture a moment, even though the material is less expressly about society or politics. David Benioff’s script (adapted from his own novel) is about a drug dealer played by Edward Norton who spends his last pre-prison day of freedom hanging out with his friends. Just as Get On The Bus was made a year after the Million Man March, 25th Hour was made a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. At a time when movie studios were scrambling to remove or avoid all references to the WTC, Lee chose to photograph the gaping hole at Ground Zero, and to include a long, cleansing, hate-filled rant. Neither of these elements have anything directly to do with the story, but they fit the movie’s overall theme of moral choices and appropriate punishment. 25th Hour is one of Lee’s most assured films: visually expressive, but also restrained, and suffused with deep melancholy, brought on by spiraling rage and regret.

Four years later, Lee had the chance to apply that more mature style to his first mainstream Hollywood action movie: Inside Man, starring Clive Owen as a bank robber, Denzel Washington as a cop, and Jodie Foster as a corporate negotiator sent in to make sure that Owen doesn’t steal anything that matters to the oligarchs. Lee was a late replacement for original director Ron Howard, but while Inside Man is a straightforward crowd-pleaser—and Lee’s biggest hit—it’s hardly impersonal. Lee uses a lot of his behind-the-camera regulars, including editor Brown, composer Terence Blanchard, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique; and he brings his love of a bustling, multi-cultural New York to a story about many different kinds of crooks. It’s too bad that Lee hasn’t had the chance to work again in this crowd-pleasing, work-for-hire vein, though perhaps his upcoming adaptation of the Korean revenge thriller Oldboy will change that.



She’s Gotta Have It was such a unique, personal, and effusive film that some wondered whether Lee had anything left to say. He answered those questions with 1988’s musical comedy School Daze, a more broadly appealing but no less idiosyncratic movie. Laurence Fishburne plays a student activist who clashes with materialistic fraternity leader Giancarlo Esposito at a historically black university. School Daze humorously—and tunefully—takes on the question of discrimination, though in this story it’s discrimination within the black community, where people are divided by skin tone, hairstyle, political commitment, and education. Though not as artful as She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze showed that there were plenty of “black movies” that had yet to be made, about subjects other than super-pimps or nobly suffering servants.


Lee drew on his own personal experiences again with 1990’s over-ambitious Mo’ Better Blues, a drama about jazz musicians informed by Lee’s memories of growing up with his father. Leaving aside the movie’s fantasy take on the music business—set in a modern world where jazz is wildly popular, and controlled by goofy but shrewd Jewish stereotypes—Mo’ Better Blues is at its best when it sticks to the politics of being in a band, where the various members rip on each other and jockey for position. The film is less successful when it’s dealing with the romantic woes of its womanizing hero Denzel Washington, or with the gambling debts of Washington’s best friend (played by Lee). But coming as it did after Do The Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues served the same function that School Daze did after She’s Gotta Have It; it was a demonstration that Lee was bursting with ideas for movies about many different aspects of the black experience, and that he had the filmmaking chops to turn even a middling backstage melodrama into vibrant, visually exciting cinema.

Similarly, Lee followed up Malcolm X with the small-scale, semi-autobiographical 1994 family drama Crooklyn, about the complicated relationships he had with his mother, father, and siblings while growing up in Brooklyn in the early ’70s. As with Mo’ Better Blues, Lee overshoots a bit with Crooklyn, complicating what should’ve been a simple character sketch about a stoic little girl by introducing cartoonish glue-sniffers (one of whom is played by Lee), and by using a distorting lens during a long sequence in which the heroine visits family down South. Still, the specificity of so much of Crooklyn is touching, as Lee clearly draws on his own memories of childhood, and on the pains of growing up.


Crooklyn makes for an interesting companion piece to Lee’s 1999 period piece Summer Of Sam, which is another personal story about life in New York in the ’70s. Only this time the year is 1977—the year of the turbulent world champion Yankees, rolling blackouts, and serial killer David Berkowitz—and the perspective is less Lee’s than that of co-screenwriters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, who write about how an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx is shaken up by the return of native-son-turned-punk-rocker Adrien Brody. There’s way too much going on in Summer Of Sam (including interludes at disco hotspots and swingers’ clubs), and Lee doesn’t seem as connected to this story as he was to the version of his own life he explored in Crooklyn. But as with the best Lee films, Summer Of Sam thoughtfully considers major events in the culture at large through the lens of how they affect ordinary people.

Richard Price’s Clockers is a masterpiece of crime fiction: a sophisticated and sympathetic look at both a smart, tormented young dealer and the detective that presses him on a murder case. Lee’s adaptation obliterates the internal richness of Price’s book, particularly the fraught life of “Strike” (played here by newcomer Mekhi Phifer), whose skilled navigation between a vicious supplier on one side and a harassing police department on the other leaves him with a burning conscience and an inflamed ulcer. But Clockers has other compensations that come from Lee’s understanding of inner-city racial dynamics, his unmatched ear for slangy dialogue, and the wonderfully textured, high-grain cinematography. The movie also features a chilling performance by Delroy Lindo as Strike’s boss, a neighborhood snake charmer who acts as a father figure to the lost boys of the projects, but metes out punishment quickly and ruthlessly when he feels his business is threatened. What lingers in Clockers is the potential of youth squashed by circumstance: In another life, Strike would grow into a successful and respected businessman; in this one, his intellect is used to sling rock and stay alive, for however long his wit and fate allows it.


To Lee’s gallery of sterling opening-credits sequences—Rosie Perez fighting the power in Do The Right Thing, the haunting buildup to the “Tribute In Light” in 25th Hour—add the montage of hoopsters across the country shooting baskets to Aaron Copland in He Got Game. From Brooklyn parks to the broad side of Midwestern farmhouses, Lee establishes basketball as an American pastime every bit as iconic as baseball and considerably more diverse. Yet He Got Game is about the departure from the sun-touched purity of the sport, particularly for young, economically disadvantaged prospects who have to take a perilous path to NBA millions. And they’re the lucky ones. Real NBA superstar Ray Allen doesn’t have the range to fully embody a motherless prep-school star who’s raising his little sister on his own, but Denzel Washington is superb as Allen’s father, who is offered a reprieve from a prison sentence if he can convince his resentful son to go to the governor’s alma mater. Lee presents Allen as a paragon of decency in a corrupt world, and the contrast sticks: In this situation, even a kid with a good head on his shoulders faces the impossible challenge of satisfying family members who make him feel indebted to them, coaches who act as sleazy pitchmen, women who may or may not have his best interests at heart, and NCAA rules that hold him to student-athlete restrictions while cashing in on his talent. There’s poetry in Copland-land, but off the court, it’s a cesspool.


Spike Lee made films before She’s Gotta Have It—student films, commercials, and videos, mainly. But his most significant early work is his NYU thesis film, the hourlong 1983 slice-of-life Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Lee’s future producer Monty Ross stars as a barber who’s expected to do favors for the local gangsters, especially given that he has a hard time making money, due to his unwillingness to keep up with the latest hip-hop hairstyles. The film is ragged, and like a lot of Lee films it tries to force plot into places where it’s not really necessary; but the scenes of guys just sitting around the shop swapping opinions has the feel of heightened reality that marks Lee’s best work in the ’80s and ’90s. Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop won a Student Academy Award and played in the New Directors New Films festival, giving Lee the clout and confidence to proceed to his first feature.


After the commercial and cultural breakthrough of Do The Right Thing, Universal bankrolled Jungle Fever, another slice-of-life that sought to expand the conversation on race into the touchy realm of interracial relationships. Though it was made only 20 years ago, it looks today like a dispatch from another planet: There are scenes that would be unimaginable in the “post-racial” Hollywood of 2012—indeed, Lee has had to retreat to the indie world to get his more personal projects made—yet it’s not as if the culture has transcended any of the issues Lee raises here. As much a study of the black professional class as a button-pusher on mixed couplings, Jungle Fever stars Wesley Snipes as a successful architect who risks his stable, upper-middle-class home and family on an affair with a temp (Annabella Sciorra) from Bensonhurst. Though riddled with flaws—an ungainly structure, an intrusive Stevie Wonder soundtrack, the stereotyping of Sciorra’s Italian-American family—the film remains vital for forcing the audience to confront taboos and resentments that are usually left to simmer unacknowledged. How many Hollywood movies today deal with the problems facing black professionals in a white corporate environment? Or the looks that greet mixed-race couples from people of all racial types? Jungle Fever looks dated not because these issues no longer exist, but because directors like Lee are not given the resources to talk about them.

Lee then made his most provocative statement on race in America in 2000 with Bamboozled, a corrosive satire about the state of entertainment made by and for African-Americans. Damon Wayans stars as a nebbishy TV writer-producer who keeps getting thwarted in his efforts to present positive images of African-American life, and rebels by creating an updated minstrel show, featuring horribly offensive stereotypes. To his shock, the show becomes a hit. Lee is commenting here on a mentality in the movie and TV business that prefers black characters to be broad and shallow, but because Lee prefers a little openness even in his most didactic films, he can’t help but sympathize a little with—and admire the skill of—those performers who sell themselves out. As a result, Bamboozled is unwieldy and muddled, sending mixed messages. But it contains stretches that are among Lee’s most fiery, all leading up to a montage of racist imagery in the media that clarifies just how dehumanizing show business has been to African-Americans over the decades.

With the messy, low-budget 2012 drama Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee revisited both the Brooklyn setting of She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Crooklyn, and Clockers, as well as the insane overreaching and kitchen-sink melodrama that defines wildly self-indulgent personal projects like She Hate Me and He Got Game. The setting isn’t the only feature that will strike longtime fans as familiar: For reasons known only to himself, Lee chose to reprise the character he played in Do The Right Thing, this time as a man who has made peace with being a middle-aged pizza delivery man. His presence proves to be a distraction from an already overloaded drama about a technology-obsessed middle-class kid from Atlanta (Jules Brown) who is introduced to a whole new world of sin, salvation, and old-school discipline when he’s sent to live with his fire-and-brimstone Bishop uncle (Clarke Peters) in Brooklyn. Red Hook Summer is a mess of a movie: an amorphous blob, hampered by an extreme lack of focus and annoyingly stilted performances from its child actors. But it’s at least partially redeemed by its bittersweet, elegiac, and finally tragic tone, and a towering performance by Peters, who transforms his fatally flawed man of the Lord into a magnetic, heartbreaking figure of Shakespearean depth and complexity.


Like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee has built a substantial body of documentary work that’s inevitably overshadowed by (but more consistent than) his narrative films. At its pinnacle are three documentaries that view national tragedies through the lens of race and social class, often with greater subtlety and more expansive range than Lee’s fictional polemics. 4 Little Girls is an elegy for the children killed in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, by a white segregationist in 1963, an act that—along with the murder that same year of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers—shocked the conscience of Americans who had hitherto considered the Civil Rights movement something distant and abstract. The subject is one of such immense power that Lee uncharacteristically lets the material lead him rather than the other way around; even the morgue photos of the bombing victims are presented with sober reverence.


The wounds Lee probes with When The Levees Broke and If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise are fresher, as is Lee’s righteous fury. The first, subtitled A Requiem In Four Acts, takes stock of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—or, as the four-hour magnum opus never lets viewers forget, the human failings that accompanied it. After all, had the levees held, or had the state and federal response not been so confused and inadequate, New Orleans might have survived more or less intact. Levees’ scope might seem exhaustive, but four years later, Lee found fresh affront with If God Is Willing, with the city still struggling to get on its feet, its people surviving, and sometimes thriving, as the nation’s attentions drift elsewhere.

Not all of Lee’s documentaries are so heavy. His 2009 film Kobe Doin’ Work is his purest expression of his love of basketball, borrowing the form of the soccer doc Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (itself a lot like the 1971 sports-doc Football As Never Before) to show the flow of one game by training multiple cameras exclusively on Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant, watching him control the action and trash-talk his opponents. And Lee’s latest documentary Bad 25 puts Michael Jackson’s less-respected (albeit multiplatinum) follow up to Thriller under the microscope, revealing how Jackson planned out every element of the recording and marketing of Bad. Both docs are love letters to unusually talented and visionary people, from another member of that club.


Lee’s collection of performance films constitute their own miniature canon: an exquisitely curated record of landmark (if sometimes overlooked) stage productions. As a filmmaker, Lee is at his least obtrusive and least inventive when documenting others’ work, but it’s not hard to place The Original Kings Of Comedy or Freak—the latter capturing a confessional one-man show by John Leguizamo—in the context of Lee’s larger body of work. (Good luck with Pavarotti & Friends, though.) A Huey P. Newton Story, a solo performance starring Roger Guenveur Smith—a.k.a. Do The Right Thing’s Smiley—balances the Newton’s political accomplishments and his personal failings far better than Jim Brown: All-American, Lee’s easygoing portrait of the football great, which lauds Brown’s political activism while glossing over his history of violence towards women. And in its description of the doubly difficult life of a middle-class black bohemian, the stage musical/concert film Passing Strange is like the autobiography Lee’s never written, hewing closer to his own background than anything since School Daze.

Lee has also lent his talents to anthology films on multiple occasions, including Lumière & Company, for which Lee used one of the original Cinematographe cameras invented by the Lumière brothers to shoot footage of his baby; and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, to which Lee contributed the documentary short “We Wuz Robbed,” about the 2000 presidential election; and All The Invisible Children, which features the heavy-handed 20-minute Lee short “Jesus Children Of America,” with Rosie Pérez and Andre Royo as drug addicts whose pre-teen daughter discovers she was born HIV-positive. None of these are essential, but taken together, they make for a good overview of Lee as a personal and political filmmaker.


Spike Lee has also dabbled a little in TV: as the producer-director of the dropped 2004 Showtime pilot Sucker Free City, about three young San Franciscans of different races who get involved with varying levels of crime, from petty to major; as the director of two episodes of The N miniseries Miracle’s Boys, about a Harlem 20-year-old trying to take care of his two teenage brothers after their parents’ death; and as the director of the pilot for the CBS series Shark, starring James Woods as a defense attorney turned prosecutor. Sucker Free City is the most Lee-like project, and would’ve made an interesting series—a little like a West Coast version of HBO’s How To Make It In America.

Lee has served as a producer on several movies throughout his career, some of which are very much in keeping with his work as a director, including the Ernest Dickerson-directed 2003 TV movie Good Fences, with Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg as a couple trying to move from middle to upper-middle class in ’70s Connecticut; and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as childhood sweethearts whose relationship is complicated by their respective basketball careers. But the best Lee-produced film is Nick Gomez’s under-seen 1995 crime drama New Jersey Drive, about teenage car thieves and the culture they inhabit. It’s the kind of movie that Lee purposefully tried to stay away from as a young director, but Gomez’s depiction of the boredom and bleakness of Newark housing projects is as nuanced as Lee at his peak.

Throughout his career—and especially in the early going—Lee supplemented his income doing music videos and commercials. Lee’s videos aren’t all that remarkable, but his Nike commercials with Michael Jordan—in which Lee plays his She’s Gotta Have It character Mars Blackmon—helped forge the NBA great’s image and helped make Lee a recognizable face and a bankable name. Without “It’s gotta be the shoes!” there may never have been a Do The Right Thing, or Malcolm X.



Spike Lee’s films tend to be cinematic collages, with vibrant scenes of African-American life edited together into a unique, organic pastiche. A good story, well told, has generally not been Lee’s way; rather, he makes movies the way a good horn player makes jazz, picking out a theme and working in the harmonic variations. Sometimes what results is sweet, and sometimes dissonant.


Girl 6 is very much the latter. A semi-comedy about the world of phone sex, Girl 6 actively courts the loose, scattershot, jazzy style of such Lee pictures as Jungle Fever, School Daze, and She’s Gotta Have It; but where those earlier films had passion and ideas, Girl 6 offers only vague titillation and suggestion. Theresa Randle plays an aspiring New York actress who tries to finance a move to L.A. by taking a job at a surprisingly bright and friendly phone-sex agency. Ultimately, Randle gets so deeply involved in the phone fantasies that for the first time she finds her acting “center.” For fleeting moments, Girl 6 seems on the verge of saying something about male fantasies and the preoccupation with power over sex. But more often Lee opts for the ridiculous, playing up the oddball aspects of callers’ fantasies instead of plumbing them for meaning.

There are also shades of Jungle Fever in She Hate Me, Lee’s story of an upwardly mobile African-American being squeezed by his white corporate bosses and led into an outré arrangement with the opposite sex. (That Lee had to make it independently for $8 million rather than for a studio like Universal says a lot about the changing movie business.) But in spite of a promising opening that strands its hero, played by Anthony Mackie, in the middle of Enron-style chicanery, She Hate Me goes off on a dubious, brazenly sexist tangent and just keeps going. When a Ponzi scheme leaves Mackie without a job and with his assets frozen, an opportunity for quick cash arrives in the sultry form of ex-fiancée Kerry Washington, who offers him $10,000 to get her and her same-sex partner pregnant. Soon enough, demand for Mackie’s primo sperm leads a parade of big-spending lipstick lesbians to request his services, but Lee doesn’t play it for farce. Lee’s career-long problems with female characters carry over into a sour, cynical half-embrace of alternative families and an inability to consider this situation from any other vantage than that of a black-male identity crisis. There’s some righteousness in Lee’s condemnation of white-collar abuse, particularly in a bravura fantasy sequence that considers Watergate through the whistleblower’s perspective, but for those inclined to label Lee a misogynist, She Hate Me is Exhibit A.


After a strong run of films in the ’00s (25th Hour, Inside Man, When The Levees Broke), Lee’s 2008 WWII film, Miracle At St. Anna, was a botch of the first order: a movie that telegraphs its leadenness in its first 10 minutes, and departs two-and-a-half hours later having left behind two or three memorable scenes. (And even the worst Spike Lee Joints have more than three memorable scenes.) St. Anna starts with a crime in the ’80s, then jumps back to Italy in 1944, when a band of “Buffalo Soldiers” were being used to bait the Nazis in Italy. The film tells the story of one platoon that gets involved in a standoff between the local fascists, the partisan rebels, and the Nazis. On paper, all of this sounds like a fine idea for a movie, but Terence Blanchard’s relentlessly mournful score, the routine-to-the-point-of-cliché battle scenes, and the broad comic relief all prove hard to endure. St. Anna stabilizes after a damn near excruciating first hour, and becomes merely a middling war movie with a heightened social consciousness. But for long stretches, the film plays like School Daze transplanted to the European front, with the token militant, the token uplift-the-race type, and the token buffoon all marching desultorily toward Checkpoint Irony.

Top 5

1. Malcolm X
Lee focused nearly everything that his films have been about—from the infinite variety of the African-American experience to the pure power of cinema—through the life story of one of the most controversial leaders in black history.


2. Do The Right Thing
Lee came of age as an artist in Brooklyn in the ’80s, at a time in New York when racial tensions were high and the culture was vibrant. Do The Right Thing ended the decade by pinning a snapshot of this place and time right up against a burning wall.

3. 25th Hour
Working with his best script since Malcolm X, Lee turned out a portrait of a grieving post-9/11 New York that doubled as a masterful study of how people live with their sins.


4. She’s Gotta Have It
The sexual politics of Lee’s first feature come off as provocative for provocative’s sake, but his channeling of decades of underrepresented black lives and culture into one endlessly imaginative movie remains a giddy pleasure.

5. Inside Man
Lee has spent so much of his career making personal, offbeat movies that no one else could’ve made, sometimes people forget that he’s one of the best cinematic stylists of his generation. Inside Man was a rare opportunity for Lee to show he could make classy, popular movies, too. Here’s hoping it won’t be the only opportunity he ever gets.