There has never been a better time to revisit the films of Spike Lee. Not only is it a great way to prepare for the release of his latest film on Netflix, but with Black Lives Matters protests around the world, all of Lee’s films are just as important, timely and urgent as ever. The burning of Sal’s Famous in Do the Right Thing, the opening speech of Malcolm X, the rage over police violence in Chi-raq and the poor government response in When the Levees Broke are just some of Lee’s tremendous moments that all have a newfound power after the events of recent weeks.
But even without the timeliness that breathes new life into Lee’s entire filmography, there’s never a bad time to explore the varied, unpredictable and underrated career of Lee. In a career that has now spanned five decades, Lee has thrived with both independent films with minuscule budgets and major studio films. He’s made the quintessential film about police brutality and discrimination, the greatest films about key moments in American history like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the assassination of one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. He’s covered race, stereotypes, hate, fear, violence and the darker sides of American history, all with a unique eye and a sharp wit. Lee is a filmmaker unlike any other, still challenging himself with different ways of telling a story and delving into new genres with ease. A legend who might not always be consistent, but is rarely boring.
To celebrate Lee and his remarkable filmography, we’ve decided to rank his feature films, an astounding collection filled with variety. Here are the films of Spike Lee, ranked.
27. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
In the early 2010s, Spike Lee’s more personal projects tended to lean towards his independent film roots, but with the added decades of confused, muddled storytelling that Lee had accrued since the 1980s. Nowhere is this more clear than with Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a Kickstart-funded remake of the 1973 Bill Gunn film Ganja & Hess, that Lee filmed in sixteen days. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is easily Lee’s oddest film, telling the story of Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who is stabbed by an ancient artifact, which leaves him immortal and thirsting for blood. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus starts to find its groove with the introduction of love interest, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), especially when it digs into her tempestuous relationship with Green’s servant, the insanely-named Seneschal Higginbottom (a pre-Mr. Robot Rami Malek). But Da Sweet Blood of Jesus has a lack of passion and is full of characters that are dead, even before they turn to drinking blood. At least, this is one of Lee’s most beautifully shot films, with the help of cinematographer Daniel Patterson, where blood has never been darker and Martha’s Vineyard has never seemed more sinister.
Also, if this is a sorta-sequel to Red Hook Summer, and Red Hook Summer features the return of Do the Right Thing’s Mookie, does that mean Do the Right Thing had vampires??
26. She Hate Me
Lee’s biggest problem as a filmmaker has been an overabundance of ideas that don’t come together to form a cohesive narrative. Lee’s films are so packed with whatever is on his mind at the time, it’s almost like he has to get all of them out into his films, final project be damned. In a weird way, Lee’s concepts do serve the main story in She Hate Me, but as they all come together, the sillier this story gets and the main themes get lost along the way. At first, She Hate Me seems like it’s all over the place, tackling white collar crimes of the early 2000s, the difficulties of lesbian relationships and adoptions, the man who unearthed the Watergate crimes, AIDS, whistleblowers, and eve the difficulty of diabetes on families. It’s wild.
Lee’s primary idea is how incorrect the stereotypes of a black man can be, how black men often are the scapegoats for white crimes and tearing down the traditional family structure. To say it doesn’t all come together would be wrong. But putting all of this together in She Hate Me is comically ridiculous. By the time Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is explaining Watergate to the U.S. Senate, right before one of the eighteen lesbians he has impregnated goes into labor behind him in court, it becomes Lee didn’t realize just how strange putting all of these ideas into one story was. There’s a method to Lee’s madness in She Hate Me, it’s just not clear if he’s aware how tonally inconsistent and straight up bonkers all these threads are when he mixes them together.
25. Miracle at St. Anna
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a film as a way to criticize Clint Eastwood, as Lee did here in response to Eastwood’s lack of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers. But if you’re going to do that, at least make sure your film is better than the film you’re trying to condemn. If Lee’s goal was to show the African American soldiers who fought in World War II that were still shown racism and hatred, even when fighting for a country that treats them like garbage, Lee does that and little more. This is an important story to tell, but Lee barely goes beyond the surface here, which is a surprise, considering how adamant Lee was about this story being told in the first place.
Miracle at St. Anna’s primary fault is that it’s a bore – which can’t be said about any of Lee’s other films. The four soldiers at the center of the story are as generic as they come, the story is awash in dull melodrama and the struggle of these soldiers never has the weight that it should. At the very least, it’s admirable that Lee tried to push himself with a war film unlike anything he had made before, but unfortunately, Miracle at St. Anna is one big misfire.
24. Red Hook Summer
At first, Red Hook Summer begins like many of Lee’s “summer in New York City” films, reminding of Do the Right Thing, and especially Crooklyn. While too many of Lee’s films are a myriad of loose threads, the first hour and a half of Red Hook Summer are somewhat formless, a strange cycle of routine that is broken by an insane twist that comes out of nowhere. It’s as if Lee decides to bottle all of his ideas into one big swing and it just falls flat. Lee’s twist isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s the kind that should’ve been set up at least somewhat earlier in the film. If anything, the twist makes even less sense when considering the earlier events of the film. The final moments of the film, again, start to change the tone, acting as if this dark twist never happened, ending on a relatively light tone.
For Lee’s first narrative feature in four years, Red Hook Summer is completely unpolished. The two child performances leading the story are incredibly awkward and can’t hold the weight of this story, and the screenplay wildly shifts back-and-forth, like Lee and co-writer James McBride were making up this story as they went along.
23. Get on the Bus
Some of Lee’s most interesting films are collections of characters from different backgrounds, religions and cultures having conversations and arguments about their beliefs and viewpoints. So a film that features many several dozen men with a multitude of differences on one bus as they drive across country, with little to do other than discuss their similarities and differences sounds like a home run for Lee. Yet Get on the Bus, not written by Lee, but by Reggie Rock Bythewood, is too much like a made-for-TV movie, full of cliches and uplifting moments that feel false. The heart of Get on the Bus is in the right place, but the execution of this often doesn’t work.
There are occasional touches that don’t feel so pat that remind that this is, in fact, a Lee film. The discussions of Louis Farrakhan’s controversial statements and a white bus driver who feels uncomfortable driving to the Million Man March are all intriguing conversations that don’t have easy solutions. But why most of Get on the Bus doesn’t work is that too often, there are easy conclusions to these arcs. Every character has his opposite on this bus and almost each dynamic gets its own concise ending. This is a film about togetherness and the strength of power in numbers, as well as the individual. It’s a film that begs for sentimental moments and unification of disparate groups. Lee can absolutely do that. But the way it’s handled in Get on the Bus undermines Lee’s talents and makes this come off more like a TV special from the 90s than an effective portrayal of the diversity and beauty of black lives and cultures.
22. The Original Kings of Comedy
The Original Kings of Comedy is like a time capsule to right before all four of these comedians became massive household names. Twenty years later, The Original Kings of Comedy is most captivating in seeing how much the career of these four men have changed. It’s odd to see D.L. Hughley open the show, seemingly uncomfortable in such a huge venue, to hear Steve Harvey say “motherfucker,” and to watch an unsuspecting audience completely unaware they’re about to see Bernie Mac become a star.
Cedric the Entertainer and Hughley are both fine here, but it’s Harvey and Mac that steal the show. Harvey’s best material is when he’s playing off the audience, as one would expect, considering his current career as a game show host. But it is Mac that handily steals the show, coming out strong and borderline insane and never letting up. He’s wild and almost scary, but every line he says is gold. Even the lines that haven’t aged well mostly work thanks to Mac’s charming delivery. As a Lee film though, this is a pretty standard, no-frills concert film, despite some great behind-the-scenes footage that could’ve easily warranted a film in and of itself.
Oldboy is without a doubt the least Spike Lee film Spike Lee ever made, right down to the opening credits that proclaim this a “Spike Lee film,” rather than a “Spike Lee joint.” Lee’s Oldboy is sort of a catch-22: there’s plenty of smart changes and nods to the original for fans, but it’s hard to imagine any fans having the option to watch either one of these and going with this one. To fully appreciate this version of Oldboy, one would have to read the Wikipedia page for Park Chan-wook’s original version, never see that film, and only watch Lee’s version.
As for Lee, it’s hard to tell if more or less of his touch is needed here. He’s more of a hired hand here, which having a person who isn’t going to consider the original a sort of holy text isn’t a terrible idea for handling material that most fans would consider precious. Lee’s one use of his signature dolly shot is out of place, but he is having a lot of fun by casting some of his favorite actors, like Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Imperioli. But when the film gets into the violence, Lee wants to get away from it as fast as possible, as this just isn’t his style. The hammer fight is his attempt to do something original with the action sequence, and it lands with a thud. It’s admirable that this American adaptation mixes things up just enough to make this feel like a parallel version of this story, rather than a straight up remake. On its own, Lee’s Oldboy is good. As a remake of a South Korean classic, it’s fine. As a Lee film, it’s almost completely devoid of anything we’d expect from him.
20. Girl 6
The most straightforward comedy of Lee’s career, is also widely considered to be one of his worst, yet Girl 6 isn’t without its charms. The first film Lee directed where he didn’t work on the script – written by Suzan-Lori Parks – Girl 6 feels like Lee’s strange take on the romantic comedy. As the title character, Girl 6 (Theresa Randle) struggles to become an actress, she begins to find her independence through her sexuality, becoming a phone sex operator. Randle is excellent, as we can hear Girl 6 gaining more and more confidence with each call. Lee does give too much time to the different kinks that people call with, making Girl 6 increasingly repetitive, but his rom-com touches, like Lee playing the best friend next door to Girl 6, make up for the monotony. Girl 6 would make a strong double feature with Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It, as both leads are unfaltering in their use of their own sexuality, and Girl 6 even uses a monologue from Lee’s debut in her auditions. Girl 6 could’ve used a tighter edit, but it’s still worthwhile to see Lee indulge in his comedic whims.
19. He Got Game
Surprising that Lee has only made a single sports film, considering his love for basketball, but He Got Game is more interesting – and far better – when it focuses on the relationship between father (Denzel Washington) and son (Ray Allen). Thankfully, the best scenes between Washington and Allen take place on the court, as Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth both literally and mentally pushes his son, Jesus, to greatness. But these father-son moments are too few and scattered throughout a film that indulges a cast full of caricatures. Allen is too stiff of an actor to carry this film, and Jake’s subplot involving him rescuing Milla Jovovich’s prostitute, Dakota, is overwhelmingly unpleasant. Like so many of Lee’s films, in a half hour was cut out, He Got Game would be a more cohesive film that doesn’t rely on unnecessary secondary characters.
18. Mo’ Better Blues
Lee’s follow up to the impeccably structured Do The Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues is a much breezier film, taking its time in showing the life of Bleek (Denzel Washington), a man whose trumpet is his life. Once Mo’ Better Blues makes its ultimate thesis known, the film comes together in a lovely ending, but there’s a lack of focus throughout that undercuts that great finale. Mo’ Better Blues is Lee’s first time working with both Washington and Wesley Snipes, and of course, he gets great performances out of both of them, and their scenes with their band before a show have an electric energy to them. Mo’ Better Blues hinges on the arc of Bleek, but it’s hard to buy the growth that this character goes through. Lee decides to focus Bleek’s story on the way he hurts others, yet pulls back when Bleek has to atone for his sins. Mo’ Better Blues has the bones of a great character study, but Lee’s script just can’t quite sell the transformation at the heart of his story.
Chi-raq is a mess, even for Lee’s spastic directing and writing that often jumps from topic to topic. The story, which is a retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistratra, is told in a weird and inconsistent verse, and the story of a women’s sex strike in Chicago to stop gang violence is full of loose ends and lame rhymes. But Chi-raq is also the most engaged Lee had been in a film in years, with a sense of urgency, anger and a demand for justice that makes for some of his best films. It’s clear Lee is having a great time behind the camera, throwing out all his tricks, like a gorgeous use of his favorite dolly shot, dance numbers that harken back to School Daze, and the return of some of Lee’s favorite actors from the 90s, like Snipes and Angela Bassett. Chi-raq is sloppy, with a solution to Chicago’s gang problem that is far too simple, and with crazy ideas that don’t work throughout, but Lee’s fervor and intensity for his subject seems to be bringing him back to life, both as a writer and a director.
Lee’s counter to films like Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood, Clockers focuses more on the experiences that could lead a black man to drugs and murder. Lee does this by structuring Clockers like a murder mystery, showing us the crime, but holding off on who the killer is until the end. Yet by the time Lee gets to his big reveal, the who isn’t as important as the why and how. Richard Price, who wrote this script with Lee, would go on to write for The Wire, and this world of drugs on the streets does play like a miniature version of David Simon’s show. Clockers also at times feels like Lee’s test run for what he would do with 25th Hour, showing that maybe the ultimate way to evade the problems inherent in the city is to escape it altogether.
15. Passing Strange
Filmed in the final days of its Broadway run at the Belasco Theatre, Passing Strange follows narrator and the show’s creator, Stew, trying to account for the choices he made when he was younger, as a struggling musician finding himself in Europe. Lee’s direction here is precisely considered and he’s doing two separate things that should contradict each other, but oddly don’t. On one hand, he’s giving his audience the theatrical experience of a lively half biography/half concert, and how it must’ve felt to see this show on its last nights on the stage. But he’s also showing it through perfect angles and perspective that one could never see while watching a Broadway play. Lee gives the best of both worlds and shows the many facets of his talents. One of Lee’s most unheralded gifts in his 2000s films is an ability to tell other people’s stories with a style and grace that shows a passion for the narrative that is almost as if he’s lived these events as well. This is especially true with how Lee handles Passing Strange, heightening Stew’s story with his honed set of skills.
14. School Daze
School Daze is where we can see Lee’s best and worst characteristics starting to take their form. Lee’s sophomore release is full of ideas that he wants to tackle with immediacy and intensity, including historically black colleges, the conflict between light and dark black people and middle-class African Americans, amongst other topics. Yet as we’ll see time and time again with Lee’s work, he bites off more than he can chew. But Lee is having so much fun in the process, an example of how wonderfully Lee tells entertaining stories with a purpose. He’s going big in School Daze, which features a West Side Story-style musical number about hair and a full performance of go-go band E.U.’s “Da Butt,” just for the hell of it. School Daze seems like Lee had the opportunity to make a second film, so he threw as much as he could into the film in case there wasn’t a third. Thankfully, Lee playing around with all his potential is a joy to watch.
Bamboozled is the angriest Lee film, and understandably so. Lee’s fury over black entertainment of the late 90s and early 2000s, with networks pandering for the sake of ratings comes through in what is essentially his take on The Producers. Bamboozled is Lee at his most unfiltered, as he charts the success of the horribly disgusting, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. Bamboozled is full of difficult images, such as the show’s two stars (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) having to put on blackface every night, or the skits from the show that are made even more offensive by the uproarious laughter from the audience. Yet again, Lee does too much, and what starts as a strong idea by the end, becomes a scattered presentation of points that Lee wants to make and attempts to tie up these stories, mostly with dumb bloodshed. There’s so much of Bamboozled though that feels honest, like Michael Rappaport playing a thinly-veiled version of Quentin Tarantino, claiming he has every right to say the one word he shouldn’t, and the struggle of being black in entertainment, and it is Lee’s most unsettling film to date. For all its flaws, the righteous anger of Lee’s message outweighs Bamboozled prominent weaknesses.
12. Summer of Sam
Ten years after Do the Right Thing, Lee would make Summer of Sam, another film about a sweltering New York summer that ends in bad decisions and anger. In many ways, Summer of Sam plays like a more scattered version of Lee’s earlier work, as the city’s fear and rage slowly simmer to a breaking point. In Summer of Sam, David Berkowitz is more a catalyst than anything, a way for the city’s various groups to show their distrust and paranoia towards everyone and everything. Yet instead of coming off as a Do the Right Thing retread, Summer of Sam is Lee playing outside of his comfort zone, with a film that looks and sounds wholly unlike him, more inspired by his mentor, Martin Scorsese, than anything else. It’s a big leap for Lee that doesn’t always work (Adrien Brody as a wannabe punk musician, blasting “Baba O’Riley”? Nah), but it’s an ambitious step in trying to expand his horizons.
Originally intended as a potential project for Nickelodeon (kid test audiences found it dull), Crooklyn is more for adults looking back on their childhood, the simple pleasures that could fill up a day and remembering how those that had a major impact on our younger days influence who we become. This is easily Lee’s most playful film and since this was written by Lee and his siblings, based on their childhood, maybe his most personal. It’s easy to imagine Lee, his brother, Cinqué and sister, Joie, pulling together their most intimate memories of childhood, not necessarily the most important or impactful ones, but the ones that stuck with them, in making Crooklyn. Coming after Malcolm X, this feels like a reprieve for Lee, an opportunity for him to take on some lighter subject matter, yet still imbuing it with the importance it has for him and his family. This is one extended childhood memory, vivid, hilarious and introspective, and a celebration of the neighborhood and family that raised Lee.
10. Jungle Fever
Many of Lee’s best films are almost like a series of vignettes, with various people discussing a central topic. Jungle Fever on its surface seems like a story about a black man (Wesley Snipes) and an Italian woman (Annabella Sciorra) having an affair, but the meat of Jungle Fever comes from the neighborhoods these two are from, the groups of people they interact with, and the inherent prejudices that they’ve been surrounded by. Jungle Fever is a fascinating look at race, and Lee’s dialogue is masterful. One scene might feature a light-skinned black woman pouring her heart out about how she always feared her husband would leave her for a white woman, then the next might be a soda shop full of regular Italian customers talking about why they would and wouldn’t go out with a black woman. All of these conversations are enthralling through Lee’s script. The biggest issue though is Lee packing two solid film’s worth of material here that don’t quite go well together. In addition to the discussions of race, Lee throws in a phenomenal performance by Samuel L. Jackson – maybe his best – as a crackhead tearing apart his family. This could’ve easily been another film, but instead it feels crammed into Jungle Fever. Yet still, Lee makes both of these differing stories work incredibly well, even if they don’t necessarily go together.
9. She’s Gotta Have It
Right away with his debut film, Spike Lee places himself amongst the other iconic New York City directors, like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, borrowing from both to make his own presence known as one of the greats, a deserving addition to NYC’s Mount Rushmore of directors. His greatness can already be seen with She’s Gotta Have It, as Lee tells a complicated story of the love and independence of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to any one man, instead seeking her own pleasure. She’s Gotta Have It shows Lee’s charisma as an actor and director, as Lee’s character Mars is hilarious on screen, and behind the camera, Lee shows flair even with a small budget, including a surprising homage to The Wizard of Oz. Right from the beginning, Lee presents in She’s Gotta Have It a strong lead character, proud of who she is, and uncompromising in her desires. Already, Lee makes himself a filmmaker unlike any other.
8. 4 Little Girls
Lee’s debut documentary about the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church that killed four African-American girls, 4 Little Girls allows the people most important to the incident to tell their story. Lee makes these four girls more than just victims, making them individuals through interviews with family and friends, and heartbreaking videos and photos. In telling this story, Lee highlights the tradition of violence and institutional racism in the area that ran so deep, bombings often left Alabamans unfazed. But with 4 Little Girls, Lee also shows that hope, change and steps forward for a better world can come out of substantial pain.
BlacKkKlansman isn’t exactly subtle in its messaging, but when white nationalists are in the White House, subtlety be damned. With BlacKkKlansman, Lee is able to mix blunt messages about racism in government and within institutions that helps extend the grasp of hate groups, with a genuinely fun and moving story. This is Lee in master craftsman mode, spinning all his plates at once. This is no more evident in the film’s final stretch, where Lee gives the audience their cathartic happy ending, where black lives beat white nationalist insanity. But then Lee pulls the rug out from the audience, as we’re led to believe that times are changing for the better, things are only getting worse, and the situation is now even more dire than we began. Somehow, Lee is able to make BlacKkKlansman his most enjoyable film in years with a story of cyclical racism and ultimate futility.
6. Inside Man
After Inside Man, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where Lee specialized in these types of solid, entertaining-as-hell genre films for major studios, an overqualified director ignoring his passion projects for bigger budget masterpieces. Even with money behind him and a script that isn’t his own, Inside Man still feels like a Lee film, from two excellent uses of his dolly shot, and in the way that the overall story is about breaking down institutions. Everyone here has their hands dirty. Fuck Nazis. Fuck the police. Fuck hiding dark pasts and truths that will eventually come out. With a palette of stunning blacks and blues by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, this is also one of Lee’s most gorgeously shot films. Lee turns Inside Man into essentially The Prestige as a crime film, an ingenious little caper film, with a story that continuously unravels with brilliant little details. With a twisty script by Russell Gewirtz and Lee’s style and subtle injections of his favorite techniques, Inside Man is one of the best heist films in years.
5. When the Levees Broke
Lee’s 4+ hour documentary, When the Levees Broke, is an exhaustive, yet never exhausting, step-by-step look at what happened to the people of New Orleans due to the events of Hurricane Katrina. Lee hits the multiple problems from every angle, from the poorly made levees to the horrible response from the government and the difficulty of the people of N.O. trying to rebuild. By the end of When the Levees Broke, Lee leaves you heartbroken and furious that all of this could happen. Again, Lee is using mostly talking heads to tell this doc, yet it’s the stories of these people that need to be the central focus, so we feel the suffering and rage and loss that they went through. Rarely has a film so powerfully shown a city’s constant suffering and resilience, a determination to fix where they come from, even when it seems like the odds are entirely against them.
4. Da 5 Bloods
In Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, a character states, “a war never ends for those involved.” While this isn’t exactly a new concept for the war film, in Lee’s hands, we are all complicit and victims of wars that have lasted for hundreds of years, including the Civil War, the fight for civil rights, and the events of Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but in Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s first true action film, he’s maybe more restrained than ever, focused in a way that never strays too far from his main topic. Lee’s directing and script, which he co-wrote with three others, is focused and tight, mixing important messaging with a tense-as-shit story of brotherhood and greed. Lee has never worked at this large of a scale before, but he moves between big gun fights, shifting expectations and loyalties and nerve-wracking pressure with ease and grace. Delroy Lindo gives a deeply disturbed performance as a PTSD-plagued Vietnam vet that’s one of the finest performances in a Lee film, and the somber use of Marvin Gaye throughout the film is a constant reminder that we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on with our world. With Da 5 Bloods, Lee goes big and pushes himself in ways we’ve never seen before, while controlling his more bombastic tendencies for the sake of the bigger picture. The result is one of Lee’s greatest films.
3. 25th Hour
In 25th Hour, Lee creates the ultimate film about 9/11, with a city united, yet terrified of the future. 25th Hour pulsates with love for New York City that even comes out when addressing everything wrong with it. 25th Hour often feels like a culmination of Lee’s career up until this point, with an ending that’s essentially a final drift for what we’ve seen in Clockers and He Got Game, outstanding dolly shots, and a “fuck NYC” montage that is a clear callback to Do the Right Thing. But 25th Hour’s greatness comes in a bravura ending that shows the road less travelled, an emotional wallop that reminds of all the times we went right in our lives when we could’ve gone left. Lee makes David Benioff’s original novel into an outstanding story about anxiety, hopelessness, uncertainty and the options we have in life that we could’ve – and probably should have – taken.
2. Malcolm X
Lee’s biopic about Malcolm X succeeds by doing all the things that we now see as weaknesses in biopics. Malcolm X is over three hours long, a film that covers his entire life, from childhood to his assassination. It is completely reverent to its source material, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Yet, Malcolm X needs to be that long and needs to show his entire life so we can grasp the incredible arc and growth that can occur over one lifetime. Lee’s take on Malcolm X feels like three different films because Malcolm X’s life changed so drastically over his relatively short life. There might not be a better combination of source material and director than Malcolm X, as the spirit of Malcolm has lived on in Lee’s work since She’s Gotta Have It. There’s a care and precise vision Lee has for this story, wanting to show every aspect of who Malcolm was, and he does this with brilliant efficiency. Like Haley’s book, Lee doesn’t shy away from Malcolm’s faults, but makes us understand his viewpoint and actions, even at their most extreme. Lee shows Malcolm as a man who is willing to adapt, a great teacher who is still struggling to learn everything he can. Malcolm X isn’t simply a great biopic – maybe one of the best – it’s a sign of our evolution as people, how our opinions shift and change over our lifetime. How things that seemed so certain can sweep the rug out from under us. How the grandiosity of life allows us to live many lives in one. Lee does all this simply through the lives of one of the most integral and staggering voices of the 20th century.
1. Do the Right Thing
“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”
While Do the Right Thing takes places over mostly one day, it’s filled with centuries of backstory, pain, hatred, discrimination, but also love. The beauty of Lee’s masterpiece is that every character – as Radio Raheem shows in a speech from The Night of the Hunter – has the capacity of love and hate within them. The extreme heat of Do the Right Thing’s summer suffocates and confuses, but also heightens all the passions and anger within this block of Bed-Stuy. There are well-defined characters, each with depth and history that Lee doesn’t demonize, but instead, puts his audience in their shoes to understand where they are coming from. Lee can have a character spewing the most disgusting bile at others, yet we can see their perspective – not necessarily sympathize with – that would lead them to such actions.
Lee smartly doesn’t go for easy answers, or any real answers at all. Because of that, Do the Right Thing could come off as sloppy, but instead, it’s realistic in its depiction of racial dynamics. Lee is going for core truths and ideas, in a community rich in a fictionalized history that feels both true and artificial, as if this block is one large stage for us to watch. Lee builds his characters to a breaking point, ending in the horrific death of Radio Raheem that only gets more painful to watch after even more years of police brutality and murder.
In the end, as Lee’s Mookie and Danny Aiello’s Sal have a conversation the next morning in front of the ashes of Sal’s Famous, again, Lee doesn’t seek easy answers. Lee never tells us if Mookie does the right thing when he smashes Sal’s after the death of Radio Raheem, but it feels right, it feels essential, it feels cathartic. Instead, the two go their own ways with a tenuous amount of tolerance for the other. Maybe that’s how we do the right thing? Putting aside differences to find the core humanity of others. Maybe the only way to stop the unending hate is to counterbalance it with love, as difficult as that may be? Lee’s not here to give us the answers, he’s here to raise the questions, which he does with this phenomenal achievement, a true American classic and a powerful masterpiece that becomes even more urgent and true with every passing year.