4) When the Levees Broke (2006): Lee’s acclaimed 4-part HBO documentary series is quite simply the best summation of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy that’s ever been put on film. He captured not only the infamous moments (Cheney getting cussed out, ‘Heckuva job Brownie’) but also the real heart and soul of the New Orleans populace.
5) Crooklyn (1994): One of Lee’s most personal films, this autobiographical ode to his youth in 1970s Brooklyn is a sweet, sentimental treasure. Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo are terrific as the parents but it’s pint-size Zelda Harris who steals the movie as the stand-in for Lee’s real-life sister Joie Lee.
6) School Daze (1988): Teeming with ideas about gender, sex, skin color and class — this HBCU-based comedy-drama is one of Lee’s most ambitious films. While it’s ‘Wake Up’ message may be murky, it’s still one of the most compelling black films of its era.
7) Inside Man (2006): After 20 years of making feature films, Spike Lee finally directed a mainstream Hollywood production — with dazzling results. Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen (pictured) anchored this high grossing heist film which helped prove how versatile Lee can be.
8) She’s Gotta Have It (1986): Funny, funky and unapologetically politically incorrect — this playful Spike Lee sex comedy was his first full-length feature. Charmingly low budget, this film introduced audiences to Lee’s signature foul-mouthed dialogue and his iconic Mars Blackmon character.
9) Clockers (1995): Mekhi Phifer (in his debut role) stars in this criminally underrated and often overlooked drama about street level drug dealers. Originally conceived as a project for Martin Scorsese, Lee took the reins and created a complex story that would introduce themes that would later be explored in even greater depth on HBO’s The Wire.
10) Bamboozled (2000): Easily one of Lee’s most polarizing films, this satire of the representation of blacks in media is certainly not for everyone’s taste. Still, it’s a bold and fascinating attempt to take on pervasive ignorance in black popular culture and it features standout performances from Tommy Davidson, Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Mos Def and Jada Pinkett Smith.
3) Do the Right Thing (1989): Lee’s breakthrough and arguably his most influential film. This heated drama perfectly captured the intense racial divide of the late 1980s. Bursting with vibrant music, color and performances — its violent climax is still controversial.
2) Malcolm X (1992): Lee’s most epic film featuring Denzel Washington’s greatest performance ever in the titular role. A true masterpiece that introduced the seminal civil rights leader to a whole new generation of Americans — warts and all.
1) 4 Little Girls (1997): Even Spike Lee’s detractors can’t knock the power of his documentaries and none have been as emotionally overwhelming as this one. Lee shows incredible sensitivity in telling the story of four little girls who were tragically killed in a racially-motivated Birmingham bombing. It’s virtually impossible not to be left in tears by this remarkable film.
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This weekend marks the release of yet another Spike Lee Joint, the low budget drama Red Hook Summer. The film has already generated considerable controversy, which of course is nothing new for the legendary auteur. While Lee’s work is at best inconsistent, he has made at least a dozen great films — which is a remarkable feat considering his anti-Hollywood style and confrontational persona. As the most famous and celebrated black director of his or any era, Lee is often held to a standard that few, if any, could live up to. And yet, over 25 years he has created some truly special films that we at theGrio would like to celebrate. So check out our top 10 Spike Lee films slideshow, and let us know whether your favorites made the cut.
Check out more content on Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer from theGrio: