Shelton Jackson Lee, or better known as Spike Lee, is arguably the most important filmmaker of the past thirty years. From exploring colorism, race relations, crime, and other controversial topics, Lee has produced over 35 “Spike Lee joints” through 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks company. As the legendary filmmaker has just celebrated his 60th birthday, here are some of the best and most-defining works of Spike Lee’s career (in no particular order).
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Probably one of the most stylish films to date, Do The Right Thing is a seminal Spike Lee joint. Set on the hottest day of the summer, the film explores the racial tension in the historically-black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with an all-star cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and a very young Martin Lawrence. Tackling issues such as racism, gentrification, police brutality, the film was way ahead of its time and could have easily been released today in the “Black Lives Matter” age. As his third feature-length film, Do The Right Thing was a major success for Spike, grossing nearly $40 million and garnering his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film was even deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and inducted into the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility, becoming one of just six films to hold this distinction.
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee’s biographical drama film about the highly misunderstood and mischaracterized activist is a definite must see. Chronicling his humble beginnings in Omaha to his involvement with gangsters in Harlem and his ascension and departure from the Nation of Islam, the film gives an honest portrayal of Malcolm X with insight to the good, the bad, and the ugly moments of his life without putting him on a godly pedestal of perfection. Spike’s superb direction and Denzel Washington’s sharp embodiment of the activist was widely praised.
3. Jungle Fever (1991)
In this Spike Lee Joint, the filmmaker explores a tumultous interracial affair between a married black architect (played by Wesley Snipes) and his Italian-American temp which is highly despised by both of their families. Meanwhile, his crack addict brother is continuing to struggle with his addiction which is also taking a toll on the rest of the family. Although the premise sounds a bit messy, Jungle Fever is an effective film. Internalized racism and colorism are major themes of the film – topics typically overlooked in modern cinema although still a huge issue in the black community.
4. Crooklyn (1994)
This semi-autobiographical film based on Lee’s childhood is instead shown through the eyes of a nine year old girl Troy. A departure from the his previous films which focused on serious issues (such as racism), Crooklyn was pretty light-hearted in terms of subject matter instead demonstrating growing up in Brooklyn the early 1970s. This coming-of-age tale follows the independent young Troy, the only girl in a a household of boys, navigating her way through the world. An added plus of the film is that we get to actually see children playing and existing outside (does this even happen in current times?)
5. When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
One of his few documentaries, When The Levees Broke is a look at the devastation of New Orleans following the monstrous wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Filmed three months after the hurricane hit and comprised of news footage, still photos of the hurricane’s aftermath, and first-hand accounts from the city’s residents, the documentary shows the suffering of those affected by the disaster while also criticizing the levees’ poor design and the government’s slow response. The documentary was also a critical success, winning three Emmy Awards as well as a Peabody Award.