This article originally ran in August 2012 and has been updated to include the director’s most recent films.
It is hard to fathom that Spike Lee is 63 years old. For those of us who came of age with his movies, watching Mookie throw that trash can through Sal’s window in Do the Right Thing or witnessing Flipper confront his drug-addicted brother Gator in Jungle Fever, Lee has been our political conscience, talking about race and class in America in a way no other filmmaker has over the past four decades. How can an artist of such vitality now be a senior citizen?
Remarkably, his passion and bravura haven’t diminished an iota with age. Although a respected elder statesman with two Oscars — one honorary, one for co-writing the screenplay for BlacKkKlansman — he has refused to blunt his criticism of a society that imperils people of color. And, sadly, his voice is as necessary as ever: The recent murders of George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of the police prove that Do the Right Thing’s racial injustice is still very much with us. How many 31-year-old films are still so ahead of their time?
Born in Atlanta but forever devoted to Brooklyn, Lee has learned to thrive as an independent filmmaker at a time when that proposition is becoming increasingly fraught. He emerged at a time when the American indie scene was thriving thanks to mavericks like John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch, but although Lee has made his share of studio movies, he has found that path to be difficult, unable to get passion projects off the ground and, instead, shooting films on a shoestring in order to tell provocative stories. Not that those obstacles have slowed him: Here’s a man as comfortable working in documentaries (4 Little Girls), filmed theater (Passing Strange), crime thrillers (Inside Man), and outlandish satire (Bamboozled). He’s made biopics (Malcolm X) and 9/11 elegies (25th Hour). Sometimes his movies fall short, but you never doubt that he’s giving his all to every one of them. Even his bad movies seem energized by his daring — he has never doubted his enormous talent, never questioned the importance of his unique voice.
With Da 5 Bloods arriving on Netflix, we offer this ranking of his formidable oeuvre. We included only his theatrical releases — Lee has made several television documentaries and even a TV pilot — with one notable exception (his Katrina documentary for HBO, When the Levees Broke), because it’s one of his masterworks.
Anyone who wants to write a cultural history of America since the 1980s would do well to study Spike Lee’s films. The nation’s pain, joy, and aspirations are writ large across these movies. At 63, he remains committed to shaping that history.
27. 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.
26. 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.
25. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
This is Lee in film-professor mode — he has been teaching film at NYU for more than 20 years — with occasional moments of full-out-crazy sex and gore. Why? Who knows. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri called this “the strangest film Lee’s ever made,” and while that’s true, it’s also overselling it: The movie isn’t ever quite exciting enough to let you truly deep dive into its weirdness. A vampire movie without vampires, Lee is trying to say something about race and class and the battle of the sexes, and it’s also a remake of an experimental, revered-by-some blaxploitation film that seems to assume the audience is as familiar with the film as Lee is. It’s a difficult sit, with a beguiling lead performance from Stephen Tyrone Williams to recommend it and not much else. For diehards only.
24. 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.
23. 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.
22. Oldboy (2013)
Proving that Lee is still game for fresh challenges, Oldboy represents two firsts for him: This is his first remake, and his first time trying his hand at a gritty, nasty revenge thriller. Staying relatively faithful to South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s grueling original about an innocent man locked away for decades by a shadowy group, this Americanized version ends up feeling like an intriguing footnote in Spike’s career rather than exciting new terrain. Moreover, Josh Brolin’s decidedly monochromatic performance only adds to the impression that everybody involved just wanted to indulge in a little B-movie darkness. As a visual storyteller, Lee is always exciting to watch, but his best films provoke deeper passions in him than what’s on display in Oldboy. It’s an intriguing curiosity, which isn’t the same as saying it’s all that good.
21. 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.”
20. 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.
19. 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.
18. 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.
17. 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.
16. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Both of Lee’s films since the election of Donald Trump have been sprawling, urgent, uncompromising, and overstuffed, as if Lee has so much to say that he has decided that he has to pack in every single thought he has. This two-hour, 35-minute massive swing for the fences is basically six movies in one: heist movie, war epic, nostalgic ensemble drama, tragic character study, plaintive political polemic, and shoot-’em-up thriller. It can be occasionally breathtaking to watch Lee try to juggle all of these, and at its best moments, it can be transcendent. (Delroy Lindo’s Paul is instantly one of the most riveting, fascinating characters of Lee’s career.) Every time it pulls back to the primary plot, though, it loses steam and focus, as if Lee feels obliged to return to it, even though it’s certainly not what he’s most preoccupied by. (And we’re pretty sure you could excise the French characters entirely and lose nothing but half an hour of running time.) But the ambition and scope of this thing at times is staggering, and it remains remarkable, after 40 years of making movies, that Lee can maintain this level of energy and passion. The film is in some ways Lee taking advantage of this moment to make as much movie as he can. No filmmaker has earned that right more.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. 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.
12. Chi-Raq (2015)
Lee has never been known for clockwork precision or fastidiousness: Even some of his best movies are shaggy and rough around the edges. But Chi-Raq is messy even for him, with countless subplots, entirely extraneous characters, no central through-line, and several scenes that seem to exist for no other reason than that Lee just thought they’d be funny. This movie is all over the place, particularly the last hour, which features so many detours and narrative cul-de-sacs that it can be hard to follow what’s going on. And you know what? We still loved it. Lee shows an energy and gusto he hasn’t had in years, an all-out blitzkrieg of inspiration, an almost free-association jam of everything he’s been wanting to scream from mountaintops for a decade. The movie is a cauldron of huge emotions constantly boiling over, and Lee just lets them run wild. There are some sequences here — the concert at the beginning of the film, John Cusack’s explosion of a church sermon — that are as powerful and skilled as anything Lee’s ever done. So, yeah, it’s a mess. But what a glorious mess it is.
11. 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.
10. 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 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.
9. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
A true-life story about a pair of cops (John David Washington and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado is as urgent and furious as any Spike Lee movie. BlackKklansman uses its true story to launch into a desperate, almost shaking rage about the nation we live in now … and the nation we’ve always lived in. Lee isn’t always focused on the specific plot details, but his detours and side rants are pleading and imperative: It’s a film that is about the now but also about everything Lee has been saying for 30 years. It’s also funny and funky in the way his best films are. Lee’s filled with anger, but he’s having a blast getting you, and himself, riled up. No other filmmaker on earth would have told this story this way … it is uniquely, eternally, Spike.
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.