In Five Films

In Five Films: Spike Lee

Not sure where to begin with the Da 5 Bloods director's fascinating and diverse canon? Here's our quick guide to his filmography...

American auteur, outspoken activist, professor of film: Spike Lee has directed a whopping twenty-three movies since making his debut back in 1986. Some great, some good, some bad – but always interesting.

Few filmmakers possess such a diverse and eclectic canon, from films about Black identity and race relations, dramas dealing with the fallout of 9/11, to unashamed genre exercises, a musical, and even a remake of a certain modern classic from South Korea. What unites these pictures is the fact they're all – in one way or another – unmistakably “Lee joints.”

To coincide with the release of his explosive Vietnam war movie Da 5 Bloods (streaming this week on Netflix), here are five films for anyone looking to brush up on Spike Lee's canon – each one exposing a different side to a filmmaker who has never been more relevant…

 

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Lee's first ever joint was this – then unprecedented – portrait of romance set in a Black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. She's Gotta Have It (later made into a Netflix series of the name) finds Nola, played by Tracy Camilla Johns, courting three potential suitors, all of whom take turns to pledge their love in a series of comic vignettes. Shot in crisp monochrome, the film at first appears to be taking its cues from Woody Allen's Manhattan – and indeed the sharp compositions and romantic conversations further the comparison. But really this is a film that only Lee could have made: audacious, clever, uncompromising.

 

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Lee's undeniable masterpiece might also stand as the sweatiest movie ever made. Set over the course of a single, sweltering day in Brooklyn, it follows pizza delivery man Mookie, played by Lee himself, who works for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. As the summer heat intensifies, so do the racial tensions. Do the Right Thing is an aesthetic treat – boldly styled, visually and aurally, but also never more relevant in its depiction of race relations and gentrification than now. Its unforgettable, sobering climax, meanwhile, has prompted decades of debate, posing a question that seems more timely with each passing year: Did Mookie do the right thing?

 

Malcolm X (1992)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Choosing to adapt the life story of one of the most famous Americans was no small undertaking, even for the critically beloved Lee, who was then coming off the success of interracial relationship drama Jungle Fever. But this juggernaut of a film, weighing in at just under three and a half hours, is no stodgy biopic. Instead his highly idiosyncratic picture consistently plays with genre and mood, giving us a film that – like its subject – is not so easily pinned down. Malcolm X marked the second time that Denzel Washington would appear in a Lee film, resulting in one of his greatest performances.

25th Hour (2002)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Though at first glance it seems largely poised in the “director for hire” vein (the script is based on a novel by Game of Thrones' David Benioff), 25th Hour has since come to feel like one of the filmmaker's most distinct works. Edward Norton – sad and sitting on a bench in the memorable poster – plays a drug dealer who has 24 hours before he must turn himself in to begin a 7 year prison stretch; Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the pals out to make his last day count. Thematically, the shadow of 9/11 fills the narrative with an anxious air. Strange, slow, singular.

 

Inside Man (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

As made clear by 25th Hour, Lee has never been afraid to helm the occasional “paycheck” movie. Yet he's always managed to make these ostensibly less personal works into movies that feel thematically tied to his wider canon. Inside Man, starring his regular collaborator Denzel Washington as a cop entangled in a hostage situation masterminded by Clive Owen, gives us Lee in full blockbuster thrill mode. Lee is, at heart, a cinephile filmmaker with a huge knowledge and appreciation for genre movies – not so different from Quentin Tarantino. Until Da 5 BloodsInside Man was perhaps the most successful bridging of Lee's two filmic sensibilities.

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