The first time I saw Spike Lee was in the trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It,” hawking tube socks on a street corner to buy “butter for my whole wheat bread.” That was 1986. Since then, I’ve seen all of his movies as soon as they opened, a streak that will continue with his new joint, “Da 5 Bloods.” That includes documentaries, concert films and music videos as well as more than a score of features.
Lee’s work can be uneven, but it’s never uninteresting, even if his public persona has sometimes distracted attention from his filmmaking. His candid, funny, occasionally infuriating statements in interviews and on social media are evidence of his political passion and also his playfulness, qualities that inform the movies too. Many of them confront American racism, past and present, with an unsparing eye for its cruelties and contradictions. The best of them are also peerless works of cinematic art, overflowing with visual inventiveness, memorable acting and arresting music.
If you’re looking for a way into an imposing and eclectic body of work, here are my nine recommendations for essential Spike Lee viewing experiences, sorted according to what you gotta have.
I gotta have a great movie that made history.
‘Do the Right Thing’
In 30 years, this study of simmering racial tension on a few Bed-Stuy blocks has gone from controversial to classic. As Reggie Ugwu noted in his recent profile of Lee, the filmmaker’s indignation at America’s racial injustice is often rooted in heartbreak, and “Do the Right Thing,” is less incendiary than profoundly sad. It is also persistently, agonizingly topical. As I write this, cities across America are burning in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, and the causes of that unrest — so powerfully anatomized in “Do the Right Thing — are unlikely to go away any time soon. As you read this, it’s not unlikely that another, similar story is unfolding somewhere in America.
The violent climax is all too credible and impossible to shake, especially because it emerges from such a warm, affectionate, funny portrait of a neighborhood and its characters. That paradox — what Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) describes as the endless battle of love against hate — is an essential fact of American history that no other film has gotten quite so right.
120 mins, 1989. Rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have a great movie about history.
The idea of a Malcolm X movie had been kicking around Hollywood for more than 20 years when Lee stepped up. His movie did more than make X-stamped baseball caps a fashion staple: it showed that epic filmmaking could be politically urgent, and that a biopic could contain multitudes. “Malcolm X,” changing its visual palette and its mood to match each decade of the story, is a comedy, a love story, an almost-musical and a whodunit, held together by Denzel Washington’s somber, witty, altogether electrifying performance. A lot can be said about Lee, but one thing that never seems to be said enough is that he is one of the all-time best directors of actors, in a league with Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese. (If you pair this movie with “Mo Better Blues,” you can also see that Lee is one of the finest directors of Denzel Washington.)
202 mins, 1992. Stream on Netflix and rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have the shoes.
Who was the original sneakerhead? Doyouknowdoyouknowdoyouknow? It was Mars Blackmon, Lee’s alter ego from “She’s Gotta Have It,” who reinvented himself as Michael Jordan’s hypeman in a series of Nike commercials that were impossible to avoid in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Did making those spots — 30 seconds long, shot in Lee’s beloved black-and-white — constitute selling out? Maybe, but they also represent a formidable act of synergy, a blend of sports, cinema, street culture and raw capitalism that we’re still very much living with and in.
Watch on YouTube
I gotta have the laughs.
‘The Original Kings of Comedy’
Filming a live performance — capturing the energy of the audience, the sweat and nerves of the people onstage, the surprises that inevitably erupt — is never as easy as it looks. And proper respect should be paid to the four comedians who do most of the hard work here: Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and the irreplaceable Bernie Mac. But what makes “The Original Kings of Comedy” an authentic Spike Lee joint is its generosity, the love it communicates for the kings as they hold court.
115 minutes, 2000. Rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have memories of the way Brooklyn used to be.
Lee grew up in a pre-gentrified Brooklyn, the oldest child of a musician and an educator. Collaborating with his sister Joie and his brother Cinqué, he recreated the moods of childhood in this bittersweet meditation on family and neighborhood life. Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard are wonderful as the parents. But “Crooklyn,” lovingly shot by Arthur Jafa and perfectly scored by Terence Blanchard, belongs to young Zelda Harris as Troy, the wily and watchful daughter.
115 minutes, 1994. Rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have a crime story with Denzel and a little politics.
Every now and then, Lee likes to show off his genre chops. Like some of the New York filmmakers in whose footsteps he follows, he’s interested in cops and robbers, capers and chases. You can see this in the ambitious “Clockers,” based on a Richard Price novel, and in the studious “Oldboy,” which remakes the South Korean revenge classic. But the purest thriller Lee has made is “Inside Man,” with its blue-chip cast (Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer in addition to Washington), its icy blue lighting and its sharp but subtle critique of money and power in post-9/11 New York.
129 minutes, 2006. Stream on Netflix or rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have a crime story with Denzel’s son and a lot of politics.
“Malcolm X” opens with footage of Rodney King’s 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers. “BlacKkKlansman” ends with video of Heather Heyer’s killing during the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. In both cases, the point is that when it comes to American racism, the past is never fully past. Based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs police force, this movie is the kind of genre hybrid that is Lee’s hallmark. It’s part romance, part buddy picture, part station-house procedural, as Stallworth and a Jewish colleague (Adam Driver) set out to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a tremendously entertaining movie and also a gut punch.
135 minutes, 2018. Stream on HBO platforms.
I gotta have a crime story with different politics than you might expect.
Adapted from David Benioff’s novel, this underworld melodrama was shot mostly in Manhattan in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, a catastrophe that haunts the film without being its explicit subject. Monty Brogan, a midlevel mobster played by Edward Norton (never better), is trying to tie up loose ends before starting a prison sentence. His two best friends (Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman) have their own problems, which Lee examines with an affectionate, skeptical eye. His movies frequently explore the gap between wishful thinking and hard reality that so many Americans — black and white — fall into, and the final moments of “25th Hour” present it with stark and haunting clarity.
135 minutes, 2002. Rent on all major streaming platforms.
I gotta have a true crime story with all the politics.
‘When the Levees Broke’
If Lee had never made a fictional feature he would still belong in the filmmaking pantheon, would still be worth arguing about. Proof can be found in “4 Little Girls,” his documentary about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and especially in “When the Levees Broke,” a four-part, more-than-four-hour anatomy of the American tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. It’s not easy watching — the grief and fury at the destruction visited on New Orleans by natural disaster and human failure can’t be washed away by time — but Lee’s patience and empathy make it beautiful. He is a well-known talker, but he can also be an extraordinary listener.
255 minutes, 2006. Stream on HBO platforms or rent on Amazon Video.