Spike Lee. Spike has given us three masterpieces in three consecutive decades. BlackKklansman from 2018 wasn’t quite that- but a really strong film nonetheless and his best in 20 years (He Got Game in 1998). His strength is he’s a style-plus director (trademark stylistic flourishes—the reflexive looking at the camera, the double-dolly shot, use of primary color) with three of the best 250 films of all-time. I’ve studied all of his non-doc films and many of them miss the top 10’s of their respective years and that’s the weakness. You usually don’t see that from top 50 auteurs but unlike PT or Cuaron or someone with a really high per/film average—Spike is extremely prolific (closer to fellow New Yorker Woody Allen). He has 22 feature fiction films overall. His inconsistencies are troubling but he’s prolific, has 3 films in the top 250 of all-time like I said, and 10 archiveable overall films.
Best film: Do the Right Thing. This film gets better every time I see it- #49 of all-time on my list. His use of primary colors, dutch angles, mise-en-scene mastery, and the trademark “wake up” tell-off sequence talking directly at the camera.
total archiveable films: 10
top 100 films: 1
top 500 films: 3 (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, The 25th Hour)
top 100 films of the decade: 4 (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, The 25th Hour, BlackKklansman)
most overrated: There’s nothing on TSPDT that’s overrated here for Spike
most underrated: 25th Hour… It’s shooting up the TSPDT 21st century list year after year but it’s still rated outside the top 10 for 2002. You could also go with Malcolm X as it’s way down at #937 on TSPDT and I have it at #178.
gem I want to spotlight: He Got Game. I actually think quite highly of a lot of Spike’s films on the list from the 90’s (this, Jungle Fever, Clockers). They’re imperfect but contain dazzling sections. Ray Allen isn’t great but Denzel is the film’s center and he’s fantastic. It’s got Lee’s energetic camerawork, use of color, and a beautiful borrowed score by Aaron Copland.
stylistic innovations/traits: Spike is a bold visual artist even if all anyone ever talks about with Spike Lee is the content of his films. The colors and use of music (although I singled out his use of Copland in He Got Game above he usually works with Terence Blanchard who is wonderful and obviously his collaboration with Public Enemy in Do the Right Thing is critical to the film (it’s hard to imagine it without) are incredibly potent. He has the trademark double-dolly shots that I adore. He also has trademark shots of characters talking directly to the camera as well as gorgeous use of slow motion (the scene in the club of 25th hour with PSH will melt your face (in a good way) if you love film style). Subscribers to the auteur theory like me love reoccurring shots like this throughout an oeuvre. He’ll use documentary footage (Rodney King in Malcolm X, Charlottesville at the end of BlackKklansman), often makes films set in and about New York and has been a body of work dissertation that perceptively explores race in America.
- Do the Right Thing
- Malcolm X
- The 25th Hour
- He Got Game
- She’s Gotta Have it
- Jungle Fever
- Summer of Sam
- Inside Man
By year and grades
|1986- She’s Gotta Have it
|1989- Do the Right Thing
|1991- Jungle Fever
|1992- Malcolm X
|1998- He Got Game
|1999- Summer of Sam
|2002- The 25th Hour
|2006- Inside Man
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives