On June 1, Spike Lee posted a video to his Instagram titled “3 Brothers.” The video, which begins with the title card, “Will History Stop Repeating Itself?” is a combination of footage from Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, “Do The Right Thing,” and the videos of George Floyd and Eric Garner being killed by police officers. Such work has caused critics to call Lee’s work prescient, but in reality, that's a mischaracterization.
When Radio Raheem is murdered by police in “Do The Right Thing,” Lee wasn’t predicting the future; he was giving the audience a window into the brutal realities of historical oppression and racist violence. But, as Lee said, history repeated itself, only further proving why his work is so essential.
With Lee’s new film, “Da 5 Bloods,” coming to Netflix on June 12 and protests continuing around America, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the career of arguably the most talented filmmaker of the last 40 years and begin to understand what’s made his work so enduring. Here are my top five Spike Lee Films.
5. “He Got Game” (1998)
When thinking about Spike Lee, it’s almost impossible not to think of basketball. Since his time as Mars Blackmon in “She’s Gotta Have It” and his famed commercials with Michael Jordan, Lee’s been a fixture in the basketball landscape. Whether he’s harassing Reggie Miller and Scottie Pippen from courtside seats in Madison Square Garden or publicly feuding with New York Knicks owner James Dolan, Lee’s passion for the game has become a trademark of his work, including his 2009 documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work.”
With “He Got Game,” Lee deals directly with his relationship to basketball while also plumbing the depths of family tragedy and the murky underworld of college recruiting. Following famed basketball prospect Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) as he navigates his future and is forced to reconnect with his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), the film manages to combine a sense of unnerving dread and the occasional pure joy of sports into a potent commentary on father-son relationships. In one of the best sequences of Lee’s career, Jake and Jesus have one of the greatest basketball games ever captured in a film, as Lee’s love for the game almost emanates off the screen, showing the beautiful complexities of competition and familial relationship.
4. “Inside Man” (2006)
Occasionally overshadowed by Lee’s monumental works of social commentary is his complete command when working in a genre. With “Inside Man,” which follows the relationship between a hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) and a bank robber (Clive Owen), Lee crafted one of the premier crime films of the 21st century, creating a cops and robbers thriller with the intensity of “Dog Day Afternoon” combined with the sleek visual style of something like Michael Mann’s “Heat.”
By constantly innovating and navigating through various timelines, “Inside Man” manages to transcend conventional crime tropes to become something else entirely. With a brilliant sense of momentum and a star-studded ensemble cast, “Inside Man” represents a moment in Lee’s career where he was able to take Hollywood conventions and turn them on their head, creating his own original masterpiece.
3. “25th Hour” (2002)
Alongside Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Lee may be the most important figure in New York film history. In “25th Hour,” Lee channels his love for the city into a heartfelt work of art, capturing the post 9/11 moment with beauty and care, creating a personal story of pain and anguish with such sincerity that it almost can’t help but feel universal. Following Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a New York resident enjoying his final hours of freedom before beginning a long-term prison sentence, Lee perfectly portrays the anger and despair of having to say goodbye to all that one loves and realizing that nothing can ever be the same again.
Behind Norton’s remarkable performance, the film feels more like a document of a moment in each character’s life, which only gives the 9/11 imagery more power. As Brogan explores the city, the audience can feel Lee’s joy in capturing its liveliness, and his pain in knowing that this place he loves is now tragically, irrevocably changed.
2. “Malcolm X” (1992)
In one of the most memorable moments of Lee’s entire career, “Malcolm X” begins with one of the most electrifying film introductions of the last 30 years. As Denzel Washington’s voice erupts in the background, Lee cuts back and forth between footage of police officers assaulting Rodney King and an American flag burning into the pattern of an X. From this brilliant beginning, Lee never lets up, crafting an over three-hour film that feels equal parts relentless and groundbreaking.
Transcending the constraints of a usual biopic, “Malcolm X” serves as one of the most perfect combinations of an actor, director and historical figure in American film history. Lee uses every tool at his disposal to amplify Washington’s immaculate performance, maintaining a breakneck pace that other filmmakers can only dream of. Exploring the entirety of Malcolm X’s life while balancing Lee’s understanding of modern America’s racial climate, “Malcolm X” never stops innovating, making it arguably the greatest biographical film ever created.
1. “Do The Right Thing” (1989)
Before the ending credits of “Do The Right Thing,” the film displays two quotes: one from Malcolm X and one from Martin Luther King Jr. As a final note to “Do The Right Thing,” these two messages serve as a beautiful encapsulation of the film’s thesis — conflicting ideas lay within all of humanity. As characters speak of love and hate, the right hand and left hand, black and white or “Martin and Malcolm,” “Do The Right Thing” never loses sight of what human beings are capable of in any circumstance.
Telling various stories of racial disparity on a Brooklyn street during the hottest day of the summer, “Do The Right Thing” is a remarkable display of Lee’s wide ranging genius, influenced in equal parts by Shakespeare and Public Enemy. With such an emphasis on understanding and duality, the film serves not only as the greatest in Lee’s filmography, but as a document of transition in American life from the Reagan era’s complacency to a greater cultural awareness.
Lee has been revolutionizing American film since “She’s Gotta Have It” was released in 1986, but “Do The Right Thing” manages to stand alone as a reminder of the deep rooted racial components buried in almost every aspect of American life. With Americans’ attention turned toward racial injustices and issues of police brutality, it’s hard to think of a more relevant film than “Do The Right Thing.”
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.