When you think of the quintessential, old school, purpose-driven, Black movie, there is no name more synonymous with that than Spike Lee. The best Spike Lee movies were the ones that spoke to Black people, focused on the prevailing Black issues of the time, delivered a message, had a style and framing that was uniquely Black, and told Black stories.
Unfortunately, Spike Lee only made but so many movies. While his filmography is certainly extensive, his best and most representative work hails from the 80s and 90s. Sure, “Inside Man”, “Chi Raq” and “Da 5 Bloods” were all popular, compelling movies. However, they didn’t capture the times and the nation’s sensitivities the way his earlier work did.
So in examining the best Spike Lee movies of all-time, let’s run through the 5 films that I believe speak to who Spike Lee was as a director, the messages he delivered to and from our people, and what I believe was really the genesis of the modern-day Black movie.
5. Crooklyn (1994)
Crooklyn was one of those films that simply was not appreciated during its time. I was a full 10-years old when this came out, well into my movie-watching phase, and it never really crossed my path. Despite all of the prior success Spike Lee had prior to this film, he had to operate on a shoestring budget of $14 million, and he got a limited release, resulting in a meager $13 million box office. The reviews of the movie, by non-Black people, weren’t very forgiving either. However, the genius that is Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, understanding just how compelling the story was and how message-laden the plot is. One thing is for sure, as with all Spike Lee movies, the cast was impeccable. With Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo as the two parental characters, child actress Zelda Harris delivered an amazing performance that really made us understand the character’s plight. Isaiah Washington and RuPaul also make appearances.
As for the plot, it focused on the Carmichael family of Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn. They were a middle class family, living in a brownstone, in a safe part of the neighborhood during the 1970s. During the 90s, when the film was released, this was in complete opposition to reality. The movie showed the family with its many basic struggles, but ultimately turned toward the coming of age of the daughter, Troy, who spends a summer in Virginia that changes her perception.
Throughout the movie, Spike Lee puts his flair on everything. The opening title sequence was riveting and hooks you immediately. As usual, he used cinematography to make key scenes even more powerful. And the music used all came from the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in a beautiful soundtrack.
The family leanings, the Brooklyn setting, and the driving home of what Black life in America can be like, all make Crooklyn not just a quintessential Spike Lee movie, but a must-see movie for anyone that admires the medium.
4. School Daze (1988)
Spike Lee got into his musical bag with this one. The 1988 musical comedy-drama was written, directed and produced by Spike Lee. He brought the heavy-hitters with him too, as the cast starred Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell and Ossie Davis. Reported to be based on Spike Lee’s time at Morehouse during the 1970s, the movie centers around the clashing of a fraternity and sorority at a historically black college during homecoming.
The plot was quite complex, so I won’t dig into it too much here. The main gist is that college is silly, college boys are stupid, and politics fucks everything good up. To get to all of that, Spike Lee takes you through student protests, fraternity issues, colorism within HBCUs, racist locals, college administrative politics, and classism–to name a few. So if you’re looking for a movie that is light on messages, this ain’t it. Instead, stream this to learn a thing or two, and grab a coffee beforehand so that you can “please, wake up!”
3. Jungle Fever (1991)
I know that Jungle Fever gets a lot of mixed reviews, but usually movies that tackle sex, interracial issues, and the drug epidemic aren’t going to have a lot of friends. Rotten Tomatoes consensus statement on the movie is “Jungle Fever finds Spike Lee tackling timely sociopolitical themes in a typically provocative style, even if the result is sometimes ambitious to a fault”. In some ways, that describes every Spike Lee movie ever, so I guess you could say you either love him or hate him.
Still, I think it’s hard to hate this one. The provocative, sociopolitical nature of this film is why it was a 1991 Cannes Film Festival selection that won Samuel L. jackson best supporting actor at the festival. On top of Jackson, the movie also starred Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and John Turtorro.
The movie focused on an extramarital affair between a Black, Harlem, male architect and an Italian-American female secretary. Spike tries to show us how the laments of each character leads to them finding one another, almost to explain away the affair and focus more so on the interracial relationship. Needless to say, the racial component of their relationship becomes the driver for the film and has driven a generation of conversation ever since.
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Are you surprised that this isn’t #1? More on that later. But obviously, this was the movie that removed Spike Lee from “mere” world-renowned independent filmmaker and Black celebrity to becoming one of the most creative filmmakers in the history of the medium. Yeah, he was doing Michael Jordan commercials before this, and he’s made more money on other projects, but this was probably the first time that Spike was able to marry his independent leanings with near-studio-esque budgets (and expectations), and boy was it a marriage made in heaven.
It goes without saying the movie covered the legend that is Malcolm X. While in the 21st century, this may sound like just another biopic, this was actually a reawakening of a history not often told. I was a school child when this movie came out, and I can say as a matter of fact that, at the time, the Prince George’s County Public Schools system was not teaching us anything about Malcolm X. To go from really never being taught anything about him, to walking down the streets of Maryland and D.C. and seeing every Black person wearing some type of clothing with an “X” on it was a monumental shift for how our culture regarded Malcolm X.
And it was Spike Lee who did that. It was Spike Lee that reminded people, during a special time in the 90s, that the Civil Rights movement wasn’t always as peaceful as it was sometimes made out to be in history books and on TV. Through the telling of Malcolm X’s troubled and storied past, Lee informed of us how there was another fight being made, and how it was a necessary part of our advancement. Even if you were a Black person who disagreed with the sentiments, it was still instilled in you that the hunger of Black people to pursue their everlasting growth as a people was something that would not be held back.
I don’t know if I gave you much on the movie here, but that’s how powerful it was. It was more about a movement than a movie.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Done on a shoestring budget of $6 million. Made only $37 million at the box office during a time when movies were the money-generating machine of Hollywood. Starred absolutely nobody that was a household name at the time. And yet still, Do the Right Thing was not just the best Spike Lee movie of all-time, but it has to go down as one of the best movies of all-time. Period.
The movie takes a look in at changing Brooklyn neighborhood that is ripe to explode as racial tensions are growing between the Black and Italian communities living in the area. It culminates on a super hot day in Bud-Stuy that is filled with neighborhood characters that include the town drunk, a nun-like mother figure, the mentally challenged, the pizzeria owner, the underachieving Baby daddy, and of course, the boombox playing muscle man that ruled the summer streets of Brooklyn.
It goes without saying that this cast of characters makes for the quite the interesting day. Throughout the movie, Spike touches on the racial relations, gentrification, police brutality, fatherhood, love, and violence. It was a critical success, winning Lee numerous awards and nominations–although, failing to get Spike Lee the Palme d’Or (Cannes Festival) and Oscar wins he rightfully deserved. Nevertheless, Gene Siskel described the movie as “a spiritual documentary that shows racial joy, hatred and confusion at every turn”, while his partner, Roger Ebert, said it comes “closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time”.
The movie raises lots of questions, inspired quite a bit of controversy, and was still the talk of Cannes over 30 years later when Spike Lee returned to lead the jury. It’s not just one of the best Spike Lee movies, it’s also his most thought-provoking one, and isn’t that what a good movie should be all about?
More importantly, the movie stands as a public service message from the Black community to all others who want to listen to our cry for respect, equality and peace. Was it done in the most pacifist of ways? Nope. But it was done in the only way Spike Lee knows how–with a “MESSAGE!”
More Meaningful Black Movies From Future Spike Lees
While I don’t know if we have someone quite as daring and poignant as Spike Lee among us, I do know that there are many more Black filmmakers and directors making very compelling movies and TV shows with the messaging that we all need to hear. At BlackOakTV, we have quite a few message bearing Black TV shows and movies, and I hope you’ll check them out. You never know, you just might find the next Spike Lee on our platform!