Spike Lee is one of the few directors working today whose byline alone generates sky-high expectations. Ever since bursting onto the scene in 1986, the Atlanta native has found a way of continuously reinventing himself as a politically-conscious artist, diving headfirst into relevant and controversial issues that affect the Black community with uncompromising authenticity — never afraid of ruffling a few feathers to make a statement.
His bold demeanor and outspoken persona have certainly earned him an army of enemies among the Anglo-American press, most of whom have tried to belittle his work and label him as a political agitator, an agent provocateur, or worse, a talentless hack. But despite having a target behind his back for practically the entirety of his career, Spike Lee’s filmography has aged like fine wine, with his deft explorations of the human condition and the shortcomings of the American system only growing more prescient with each passing year.
Spike is one of one, meaning you won’t find any director that brings quite the same blend of comedy, social commentary, passion and bravura to the table. Be that as it may, we can always go to the man himself in search of timely movie recommendations. For anyone who isn’t on the know, Lee’s not only one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation and an essential voice in contemporary American cinema, but also a film connoisseur who has dedicated the past twenty five years to study and teach film at an academic level both at Harvard University and NYU. As a tenured professor, Lee put together a curated list made up of 95 movies that he considers essential viewing for any film student aspiring to make it big. Down below, we have assessed ten that are worth your time.
1. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
65 years on, Norman Jewison’s Best Picture winner still makes salient points about racial tensions, prejudice and police brutality. All the aforementioned themes are burrowed deep into Spike Lee’s body of work, which makes it rather unsurprising to learn that the film struck a chord with the Atlanta native.
Sidney Poitier gives a commanding performance as Virgil Tibbs, a Black Philadelphia cop who finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation involving a wealthy industrialist after being racially profiled by the local cops during his stay in a Mississippi town. After proving his innocence, Tibbs reluctantly agrees to join forces with the police chief in order to crack the case, having no alternative but to deal with racist southerners and uncooperative suspects along the way.
Lee touted his love for the legendary actor upon his passing earlier this year via Instagram. “As a Black kid growing up in the sixties, my mother would take me to Sidney Poitier’s films. Here was a proud, dignified, handsome and strong Black man that we see in our communities all the time but now burst and burnt through the silver screens of Hollywood.”
2. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
In what surely must be one of the most iconic moments of any Spike Lee joint to date, street preacher Radio Raheem (played by future ‘The Wire’ alumni Bill Nunn) runs into Mookie in one of his afternoon strolls through Brooklyn, turning to the camera and explaining to the audience the meaning behind his golden brass knuckles.
Attentive film buffs might recognize this particular ‘Do the Right Thing’ sequence as a witty callback to an earlier film, the 1955 Charles Laughton’s classic starring Robert Mitchum. ‘The Night of the Hunter’ follows a two-timing ex-convict and self-proclaimed clergyman who’s similarly prone to spontaneous sermons about good and evil, having the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” inked in his knuckles. Lee recalls falling in love with the film for the first time as a NYU film student, later putting his own spin on Mitchum’s sinister speech in his 1989 opus. For a film like ‘Do the Right Thing’ that runs the gamut from cheerful to hilarious before rolling towards tragedy, Radio Raheem’s scene feels less like a cheap re-enactment and more like a perfect summation tightly woven into the tapestry of the movie.
3. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Almost every bank heist movie released in the past half century owes a big debt to Sidney Lumet’s stone-cold classic. That of course includes Spike Lee’s work, most notably his 2006 crime drama ‘Inside Man’ starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster. One doesn’t need a college degree to figure out the many parallels between both films, which center around an elaborate New York bank heist that quickly turns sour and ends in a drawn-out stand-off with the authorities as the perpetrators reveal a socially-charged motive behind their criminal schemes.
But the connection between both films goes beyond these narrative echoes, as revealed by Spike Lee during a recent interview for Variety. “We screened ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ for the actors and the crew before we did ‘Inside Man’. Sidney Lumet was ‘da man’. I love Sidney, and he supported me, too.” A small bit of trivia is that the same actor that delivered the pizza to Al Pacino during the hostage situation in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (followed by a now-iconic “I’m a fuckin’ star” line) was cast to deliver the pizza in ‘Inside Man’ in a deliberate tribute to the 1975 classic by the Brooklyn director. “That was our homage. God bless Sidney.”
4. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Spike Lee does not see himself as a cynical man, although his body of work and reputation might suggest otherwise. It barely comes as a surprise that he took a liking to Billy Wilder’s scorching portrait of press sensationalism, in which Kirk Douglas plays a sleazy Albuquerque reporter who capitalizes on an unfortunate cave accident to create a media circus. Lee credited ‘Ace in the Hole’ as a touchstone in his film education that helped him realize that no matter how dark the subject matter is, you can always put humor in it — a slippery tightrope he’s treaded in films like ‘Bamboozled’.
“The film is dark now, let alone in 1951. It had the crystal bell as far as the impact of the media, how influential, manipulative and also how dangerous it has become.” The director went on to praised the final shot of the film where a critically wounded Kirk Douglas falls into the lenses as “one of the greatest shots in film history”, putting his own spin on it in ‘Malcolm X’ as a thinly veiled homage. Lee got in touch with Wilder to express his admiration and still holds dear to the one-sheet poster he received co-signed by the director and star of the film.
5. Thief (1981)
On July 6, 2022, we lost one of Hollywood’s giants in James Caan. The Bronx-native actor was mourned all across the globe, as we celebrated his career, from ‘The Gambler’ to ‘Misery’ all the way to ‘The Godfather’. For many, his performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s mob epic immortalized him forever as a legend of the silver screen. You can count Spike Lee as one of them, having included the first two entries of the trilogy in his personally curated list. But the director made sure to shed light in what may very well be the actor’s finest hour while paying his respects in Twitter: “We lost another great. Many know Jimmy from ‘The Godfather’, but please check out “da work” he did on ‘Thief’”.
Caan is certainly in his element in this pitch-black neo-noir courtesy of Michael Mann, starring as Frank, a grizzled Chicago bank robber who’s desperately looking for one last big heist before leaving his criminal days behind. While it may not match the physicality and bravura of some of his louder roles, James Caan injects his customary restlessness and gravitas into the role while subtly revealing a vulnerable and remorseful side behind his tough-guy facade.