Today, Spike Lee releases Red Hook Summer, his 21st theatrical film and one that returns him to the low-budget filmmaking of his early career. Lee has been making films for a quarter century, and while he's had both misfires and masterpieces, the one thing you can say about his films is that they are never, ever boring. We went through the Lee canon and ruthlessly ranked his films, from worst to best. We included only his theatrical releases (Lee has made several television documentaries and even a TV pilot) with one notable exception, because it's one of his masterworks. Read on to see our choices, and then weigh in with your own rankings below. (Read Will Leitch's interview with Spike Lee here.)
22. She Hate Me (2004): Even Lee’s biggest duds have a blazing volatility to them, their unfocused ideas bouncing around with an insistence that they need to be heard. But this low-budget 2004 curio is nothing but half-formulated, provocative notions that refuse to congeal. In one of his first major film roles, Anthony Mackie plays a newly unemployed executive who, desperate for money, agrees to impregnate his lesbian ex-girlfriend (Kerry Washington) and all her friends. A satire on corporate greed and sexual politics, She Hate Me is misogynistic and shrill, capped by John Turturro’s WTF cameo as a Brando-impersonating Mafia don. Sadly, that’s the best part of the film.
21. Girl 6 (1996): Lee has been accused of struggling with female characters, and while that’s generally not fair, it’s hard not to understand the criticism in this dead-on-arrival phone sex “comedy.” The first film Lee directed but didn’t write, it has a particularly slapdash, almost flippant attitude, as if Lee wasn’t fully invested in the material. It features, somewhat ridiculously, cameos from Naomi Campbell, Halle Berry, Quentin Tarantino, and Madonna, in case you were wondering just how vast a misfire this was.
20. Summer of Sam (1999): Released two years before 9/11, Summer of Sam depicts another period of panic and distrust in New York City: the summer of 1977, when David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz was going on his anonymous killing spree. Lee’s film focuses on a group of fictional, stereotypical Italian-Americans living in the Bronx (including Adrien Brody unconvincingly playing a Sex Pistols–loving punk) who are coping with the paranoia and fear that were sweeping the city. But rather than capturing the madness of the era, Lee drowns in sub-Scorsese excess, confusing saying a lot of things bluntly with saying something meaningful.
19. Miracle at St. Anna (2008): Turns out that Lee’s feud with Clint Eastwood over Flags of Our Fathers’ lack of black characters was a lot more memorable than the movie he made as a response to Hollywood’s history of minimizing African-Americans’ battlefield contributions. This 2008 commercial bomb fascinates because it shows the veteran filmmaker still pushing himself as he attempts a grand-canvas World War II epic with some grippingly tense battle scenes. But as with so many of his ambitious misfires, Miracle at St. Anna works mostly as an intriguing experiment, saddled with a dull, sentimental narrative that traffics in the kind of war-movie clichés you’d assume Lee would be too smart to repeat.
18. Red Hook Summer (2012): As pleasant as it is to see Lee back working low-budget in Brooklyn, this coming-of-age tale is a little too unbridled and sloppy to completely get onboard with. As always, Lee is a master of sketching out the details of a community; this one, Red Hook, is almost a land lost in time, one that has stayed almost unwittingly stuck as the rest of Brooklyn and the world close in on it. If only it had stuck with that and the story of its fallen preacher lead character, rather than its atrocious, highly misguided third-act “twist.”
17. Get on the Bus (1996): Like the Million Man March that provides its framework, it feels a little dated today: The event didn’t turn out having nearly as much lasting influence as the movie clearly thought it was going to. It’s still a lively, compelling extended one-act play, albeit one that’s a little too on-the-nose, in retrospect. It’s a little too political, a little too One Archetype Talking to Another Archetype that betrays the slapdash way it was conceived and filmed. Still, Lee’s archetypes are far more enjoyable to listen to talk than those of most other directors.
16. Mo' Better Blues (1990): The first film Lee made with Denzel Washington, this melodrama’s music and performances outshine its drama, and Lee took considerable heat for some allegedly stereotypical views of Jewish music executives. This film might have been better received had it not come directly on the heels of Do the Right Thing; it was seen as simultaneously safe and misguided, as if Lee had to make an earth-shaking movie every time out. It’s definitely not that, but the musical numbers (particularly thanks to such a charismatic star) still hold up.
15. Crooklyn (1994): After making a magnum opus like Malcolm X, what could Spike Lee possibly do as a follow-up? The answer, happily, was this warm, personal film about a Brooklyn family in the seventies led by Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard. The movie’s best asset, though, is Zelda Harris as the young girl who quietly observes everything around her, and it’s through her eyes we get a sense of a community grappling with racism and economic disparity. “It really wasn’t my intent to make a film that reminisced about this grand old time back in the seventies,” Lee insisted. “I just wanted to tell the story of this young girl who was coming of age during that time. And also to show an African-American family that was not dysfunctional; that was headed by two parents.” It’s sad how radical that still seems.
14. The Original Kings of Comedy (2000): As straightforward as you expect a comedy concert film to be, it was still Lee’s foresight to decide to film Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer right before they all blew up and careened into all different directions. This doesn’t have the visual zip that you might expect from a Lee concert film, but you can’t deny that it’s not consistently hilarious, particularly Mac, who would have been right at home in some of Lee’s earlier, rawer, funnier films.
13. Jungle Fever (1991): This romantic drama was sold as a provocative interracial relationship story between an architect (Wesley Snipes) and one of his temps (Annabella Sciorra), but it’s best remembered for its unflinching side story about the architect’s drug-addicted brother, played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson. Too often, Jackson’s body of work is reduced to his badass portrayals in hits like Pulp Fiction and The Avengers, but Jungle Fever may be his finest, most touching performance, displaying none of the dick-swinging swagger that would soon become his signature. And the less said about Snipes’s post–Jungle Fever career the better.
12. He Got Game (1998): Spike Lee’s son Jackson was born in 1997, and while it may have been completely coincidental, the next year brought He Got Game, a compelling father-son drama that feels intensely personal. (Lee wrote the script himself.) Denzel Washington plays a convicted murderer who tries to convince his estranged basketball-prodigy teen (Ray Allen) to attend the governor’s alma mater so that he can be released early from prison. As is Lee’s wont, the film meanders through some vivid, if unnecessary subplots. (Even the movie’s most passionate admirers may have forgotten Milla Jovovich’s hooker story line.) But Allen, who had just started his NBA career, more than holds his own against Washington.
11. Clockers (1995): Lee’s attempt to both dramatize the effects (and causes) of African-American crime also tries to double as a thriller. And though it can’t help but come apart a little bit at the seams, it remains compelling and mournful. Its opening credit sequence — a striking, sad tableau of crime scene photos — is almost too much for the rest of the film to live up to, but Lee’s ambition and desire for people to hear and understand were never more evident than here.
10. Passing Strange (2008): Those who can’t stand Lee’s showy indulgences should note that Passing Strange, one of his best films of the new century, is among his least intrusive. Filming Negro Problem front man Stew’s Tony-winning rock musical near the end of its Broadway run, Lee lets the autobiographical story of a young artist’s (Daniel Breaker) journey from South Central to Europe do all the heavy lifting. Funny, joyous, incredibly moving, Passing Strange touches on several of Lee’s favorite themes (race, family) but his underrated gift for working with actors is on full display here.
9. She's Gotta Have It (1986): Famously shot in two weeks on a nonexistent budget, Lee’s first film is completely all over the place, part in-your-face polemic, part Buppie–Woody Allen–esque social comedy. Like its main character — Spike’s Mars Blackmon, soon to be immortalized in Michael Jordan commercials — it’s obnoxious, loud, incorrigible, and completely ingratiating, in spite of its self.
8. 4 Little Girls (1997): A year after presenting a fictional re-creation of contemporary African-American history with Get on the Bus’s commemoration of the Million Man March, Lee delved into one of the most painful moments of the Civil Rights era with this documentary about the 1963 death of four girls when their Birmingham church was bombed. 4 Little Girls consists of mostly talking heads — family members and friends share their sad stories — but the stripped-down approach is appropriate for a tragedy that still feels like a raw wound for those who lived through it.
7. Bamboozled (2000): Incisive social critique or tone-deaf, hyperbolic satire? Lee’s most divisive film is a little bit of both — actually, it’s a whole hell of a lot of both, which gives this 2000 dark comedy its unyielding fury. Damon Wayans plays a TV comedy writer who decides to produce a sure-to-fail minstrel show in the hopes of getting fired, but to his horror Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show becomes an instant sensation. A commentary on how the racism of blackface is still disturbingly alive and well in everything from hip-hop culture to film to fashion, Bamboozled angrily burns every possible bridge. It’s amazing Lee ever got to make another Hollywood movie after this.
6. School Daze (1988): Generally underrated, this (his second film) is, in many ways, the template for everything about Spike Lee we’d come to expect in the years to come. Messy, wildly varying in tones, and frequently undisciplined, there’s still never a single second when you’re not absolutely absorbed by everything you’re watching, and the film seems incapable of presenting a boring shot. Still probably the funniest of all of Lee’s work, this is the director when he was still just throwing everything to the wall and seeing what stuck. Its roughshod charm is infectious.
5. Inside Man (2006): Turns out, Lee can make a perfectly straightforward, compelling thriller. Taking a page from old New York masters like Sidney Lumet, Lee sets his bank heist flick smack dab in the middle of his New York and then gets out of the way and lets his actors take over. It still has its Spike Lee moments — there’s a scene involving a kid and his video game that feels like an op-ed Lee would write for the Times — but this was Lee showing that, yeah, Hollywood, he could play ball and direct a cracker-jack entertainment as well as anybody, if not better, thank you very much.
4. When the Levees Broke (2006): Of all the news stories and human interest tales to come out of the tragedy of Katrina, only Lee’s four-hour HBO documentary comes the closest to capturing all the details, from the large and frivolous (Kanye West explaining his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment) to the small and horrifying. Lee has always been an underrated empathist, and his gentle (yet appropriately outraged) tone allows his subjects to tell their stories themselves, in their own words, in more devastating ways than one could imagine.
3. 25th Hour (2002): It was, in fact, happenstance that Lee happened to be just about ready to start filming of David Benioff’s novel right after 9/11, but no filmmaker could have done better at capturing the sense of loss and weary finality that this wounded city continued to feel for years afterward. The story of a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton, never better) coming to terms with his life right before heading off for a seven-year prison sentence is spiritual and philosophical in a way Lee has rarely allowed his films to be; it’s elegiac and sad and yet strong in way that make this Lee’s perfect New York film. And that closing scene is a knockout.
2. Malcolm X (1992): Spike Lee has had several ambitious dream projects — biographies of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, his cut-at-the-last-minute L.A. Riots film — but the one that came to fruition, the one made at the height of his powers, was Malcolm X, a grand epic done Spike Lee style. Over its three-and-a-half-hour running time, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character, and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, it also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining, full of some of Lee’s most masterful set pieces, particularly the breathtaking scene of Malcolm leading his followers to a frightening and exhilarating march on a hospital. Spike Lee would never have a project with this budget and this scope again. Malcolm X is a vivid example of why that’s such a damned shame.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989): In his diary on Christmas morning 1987, Spike Lee jotted down his ideas for his next movie: “I want the film to take place over the course of one day, the hottest day of the year, in Brooklyn, New York … The film has to look hot, too. The audience should feel like it’s suffocating, like In the Heat of the Night.” Beyond its other notable achievements, Do the Right Thing is a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy at a time of escalating racial tension in the city. But the film’s precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would have meant nothing without Lee’s wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria. More than twenty years later, it’s obvious that Lee’s Mookie doesn’t do the right thing at the end of the film — but it’s not as if any of the other characters (or us in the audience) know what that would be, either.