17. School Daze (1988)
College is a time and place in life where young people begin to explore facets of their identity and beliefs like they hadn’t before, and with newfound freedom from their parents find their first brush with independence. For his second film, Spike Lee–who had graduated from the historically black Morehouse College–wrote and directed a film loosely based on his time in college called School Daze.
Depicting the rising tensions between the politically active college students and the unimpressed local population, who see the students as privileged posers. A feud between two fraternities is also depicted. Unique in being possibly the first African-American college film, School Daze showed Lee’s promise as an emerging director who hadn’t quite found the right mixture of racial politics and social commentary that would make his later work so explosive.
16. Bamboozled (2000)
Possibly Spike Lee’s most misunderstood film, Bamboozled details the rise and fall of Pierre Delacroix, a TV executive who–in an attempt to get fired from his job–pitches a modern-day minstrel show. To his horror, it’s not only enthusiastically received by his boss but becomes a huge hit on television.
Part of the difficulty of this movie is that it actually shows what a modern-day minstrel show on television–complete with blackface–would look like. While it’s a wildly transgressive film, it’s also one that neither white or black audiences wanted to watch, for obvious reasons. It may be his most bold film, but it was also a box office bomb.
15. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
A wealthy anthropologist is stabbed to death by an ancient African dagger by a suicidal colleague and is summarily turned into a vampire. Finding he is invulnerable and no longer wants normal food, instead only thirsting for blood, he begins to kill to slake his appetite. He also falls into a relationship with the ex-wife of the man who stabbed him, turning her eventually into a vampire as well. But he soon becomes disillusioned with this life and begins to find a way to escape it.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was Spike Lee’s first film funded by Kickstarter and solicited music from unknown artists on social media for the soundtrack. Shot in just 16 days, this was another remake from the director, only much more successful than his previous remake attempt. This is a low-budget, stylish genre film from a director who continues to experiment even 30 years into his career.
14. He Got Game (1998)
Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is in prison for killing his wife. Meanwhile, his son is the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country. The state’s governor, wanting his son to play for his alma mater, paroles Jake for a week to persuade his son to play for that college, which if he succeeds will receive a reduced sentence.
An artful film that approaches the strained relationship between a father and son while also weaving a complex tapestry of tones and characters. Critically well-received but not a box office success, perhaps it’s too long a film (clocking in at 134 minutes) to be considered an easy watch, but like many of Lee films, it’s one filled with ideas.
13. Crooklyn (1994)
Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York during the summer of 1973, Crooklyn focuses on a young girl named Troy and her family. Throughout the summer, she learns life lessons through the struggles of her family, who are financially strapped, while also eventually finding strength through tragedy.
Part of Spike Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, Crooklyn is one of his few films that is rated PG-13. Another strong effort from Lee that’s hampered by an increasingly depressing film, as part of the “Brooklyn” series of films, it’s effective in its depiction of early-70s Bedford-Stuy but perhaps would have been more successful if it were more nostalgic and positive. At least the soundtrack–a collection of early 70’s hits–is fantastic.
12. The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)
Spike Lee has made a sort of secondary career as a documentarian, and some of his best films are documentaries. And The Original Kings of Comedy is his funniest film–as it should be, since it’s a documentary of the eponymous comedy tour in 2000.
Featuring stand-up routines from Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac, Lee intercuts the performances with footage of the comedians hanging out, going on radio shows, and spending time at the hotel before the shows. Well-received by critics and a box-office hit, The Original Kings of Comedy shows Lee taking a back seat to the material on-screen and the result is a high-quality evening of comedy.
11. Chi-raq (2015)
Based on the Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek play in which women punish their husbands for fighting in the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex, Lee transports this ancient play to modern-day Chicago, which–if the reader is based in the US or follows American news–is suffering from high murder rates from black-on-black violence.
In Chi-raq, a group of women led by Lysistrata organize to figure out how to stop the ongoing violence in Chicago’s Southside, agreeing that they will withhold sex from their partners until all sides agree to lay down arms. However, this tactic only intensifies feuds between the gangs. Lee is perhaps his most interesting when he comments upon problems within the black community in the US, and Chi-raq has him addressing issues of race, sexuality, and violence in America. The first film distributed by Amazon Studios, Chi-Raq was hailed by critics as a return to the sharp satirical voice that was once Lee’s signature.
10. Summer of Sam (1999)
Set in the summer of 1977, the Son of Sam serial killer was stalking the streets and made citizens of the five boroughs of New York City scared to go out at night. While the killer David Berkowitz and his murders are seen in the film, however, the film follows a group of friends in an Italian-American neighborhood in The Bronx, including Vinny (John Leguizamo), whose relationship with his wife is falling apart due to his constant cheating; Dionna (Mira Sorvino), Vinny’s wife whoknows of her husband’s infidelity but suffers in silence; and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has embraced punk music and fashion.
An interesting and sometimes sprawling look at the noteable summer of 1977 in New York City, which also suffered a blackout and saw the Yankees have a winning season, it feels more like a Scorsese film than a Spike Lee film. But this is also part of its strength: Summer of Sam showed that Lee knew how to take complex, violent, and dramatic story and makes an interesting,if not somewhat distracted, film from it.
9. Clockers (1995)
A small-time street dealer named Strike (called a “clocker”) is ordered by his boss to kill another dealer that stole from him. When that man indeed shows up dead, Strike is a suspect. But when homicide detectives investigate, Strike’s brother Victor confesses instead. But the homicide detectives suspect he’s just covering for his brother, and when they move in to arrest the drug dealer that ordered the hit, violence follows and relationships are strained.
This hard-boiled film was the first in Spike Lee’s career that shows off his range as a director. Although there are black characters and the film is set in a black neighborhood, race is besides the point: this is a crime thriller. And a stylish one at that, filmed in dark hues and often intercutting across various storylines. Clockers is a Spike Lee film for people who claim they don’t like Spike Lee films would even enjoy.