US director and Jury President of the 74th Cannes Film Festival Spike Lee poses as he arrives for the screening of the film "Benedetta" at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on July 9, 2021. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP via Getty Images)
The 24 Best Spike Lee Movies
You can’t talk about Black movies without mentioning Spike Lee. In honor of the famed filmmaker, we’ve ranked his 24 best movies.
It’d be so easy to think of Spike Lee as his generation’s Orson Welles. Fiercely independent and artistically unique, Lee rarely bends to conventional Hollywood storytelling. He rarely employs a classic three-act structure and isn’t afraid to play with form — leaning on freeze frames, montages, and his signature double dolly shot — to remind the viewer they’re watching a movie. His films are critical, ambitious, impish, imaginative, and almost always boldly political. He often operates outside of the Hollywood system, consistently searching and finding budgets for unpredictable projects. It’d be easy to compare Lee to Welles. But there is no other Spike Lee.
On a systemically unequal movie landscape, where the creative lifespan for a Black filmmaker is all too short, Lee has persisted. No Black American filmmaker comes close to his output of work, and few have defined American life through several generations like him. Lee’s films are unabashedly Black and proudly New York. They tell the stories of the people who inhabit the singular fabric of the metropolis, and the way its history, institutions, and community explain the past, present, and future of Black life. It’s to the point that Black cinema and the name Spike Lee are nearly synonymous. So, in honor of the filmmaker, we’re highlighting his best movies.
But before we get started, here are a few ground rules. This list doesn’t feature Lee’s commercials (like his collaboration with Michael Jordan for Nike), docuseries (When the Levees Broke), thesis film (Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads), TV movies (Jim Brown: All American), concert films (American Utopia) or filmed performances of plays (Pass Over), because it would be too long. So, to keep it simple, this is a ranking of Lee’s 24 best theatrical narrative features (or, as he’d refer to them, joints).
24. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Lee’s reimagining of Bill Gunn’s 1973 Black horror masterpiece Ganja & Hess is disappointing. Not because it’s poorly made, but because of the flat slickness that causes the thematic principles of the source material to slide past him. Centering Hess, a wealthy Black vampire who not only kills his friend George with an ancient dagger, but takes his wife Ganja as a lover, Gunn’s film challenged Black sensuality, African folkloric and Christian religion, and racism for a steamy subversion of the vampire narrative. Apart from slight hints to HIV/AIDs, Lee’s version provides few additional layers. Every scene plays like a lesser version, particularly the rapturous sequence where Hess, with fervent faith coiling through every inch of his body, turns back to Christianity. Despite Lee pulling out the big guns for the scene — his double-dolly shot — his interpretation falls far short.
23. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
A cobbled-together hodgepodge of The Battle of Algiers, Come and See, and Paisan, Lee’s first war flick (and his first film shot outside America) is a mystery-turned-neorealist drama with dashes of the director’s signature comedy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Adapted from screenwriter James McBride’s novel of the same name, this fictional story about a quartet of Black soldiers withholding a small Italian town from invading Nazis stands as an instructional failure for Lee. The creaky combat scenes (without rhythmic snap and visual restraint), the use of the Axis Sally voiceover, the dissonant camaraderie shared by the soldiers, and the fraught racial relationship with their own country, are all rendered in less-than-desirable command. Twelve years later, these components were tightened and re-employed to far greater success by Lee in Da 5 Bloods. St. Anna was merely a test run.
22. Old Boy (2013)
You would think Lee unsuited for remaking Park Chan-wook’s vicious revenge tale, Oldboy, for an American audience — and you’d be correct. While Lee is often a spirited filmmaker (with few exceptions), he rarely takes pleasure in the kind of outlandish on-screen violence required for the story of an alcoholic father (Josh Brolin) mysteriously imprisoned and framed for his wife’s murder. Lee veers away from fight scenes featuring balletic movements toward flat, bruising brawls that do not spatially cohere. It’s not totally his fault. Producers reportedly took the final cut away from the director, causing Lee to remove his patented "A Spike Lee Joint" from the credits. The final version feels like a gun-for-hire film. And yet, there’s one scene where Brolin sees a montage of the political events he’s missed while being locked away — from 9/11 to Obama — that may speak to the film Lee was aiming toward. One where white male guilt and unprincipled paternalism could intertwine closely together.
21. She Hate Me (2004)
Back in 2013, Lee released his list of essential, must-see movies, with women notably missing from his rankings. He later amended his list with eight films directed by women, four of which were by Lina Wertmüller (the first woman nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards). It’s not often that anyone associates Lee’s work with the Italian auteur, but the two share a love of the comically grotesque. In She Hate Me, Jack (Anthony Mackie), an executive fired for whistleblowing his pharmaceutical company’s doctored HIV/AIDs medication, decides to make ends meet by starting a business where he impregnates lesbians. It’s a nonsensical, nearly regressive concept that critic Roger Ebert once credited as purposely confronting “conventional wisdom and political correctness." Unless you believe Lee was trying to channel Wertmüller, that feels like a stretch. But he was. Although Lee’s homage doesn’t wholly land, we’ll (unfortunately?) always have the image of Mackie’s face on sperm.
20. Chi-Raq (2015)
In order to stop two warring gangs led by “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) and “Cyclops” Andrews (Wesley Snipes), Dupree’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) organizes a sex strike. Adapted from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Lee’s bid to stop the violence was probably fun to write, particularly the cheeky iambic pentameter dialogue (a flashy Samuel L. Jackson chews his emcee duties with aplomb). And yet, the film misses the mark. During the first wave of Black Lives Matter, Lee relegated the violence of Chicago’s South Side as only Black-on-Black crime, while ignoring the violence rendered by police upon Black folks. With Black Lives Matter helmed by three women, he was also incapable of imagining Black women exercising collective political action except through their bodies. Too often in this occasionally blistering satire, Lee flattens and oversimplifies the realities of Black death with a source material that doesn’t align with the actual story of Chicago.
19. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Lee’s films tend to age well, often revealing their ingenious spark and spontaneity to viewers years after their release. But BlacKkKlansman might be a lone exception, which is surprising because it’s the film that returned the director back to prominence. In it, John David Washington portrays the real-life Ron Stallworth, a cop who (by phone) goes undercover into the Ku Klux Klan (Adam Driver plays his physical manifestation in a fascinating double act). There are undoubtedly zingers (“With the right white man, we can do anything,” Ron dryly says), beautifully reverent sequences (Harry Belafonte’s stirring appearance), and visually audacious scenes (an enchanting collage of Black faces earnestly listening to Kwame Ture’s empowering “Black Power” speech). But it all fizzles in the film’s waning moments, which shallowly feeds into the “one bad apple” belief that post-2020’s state enacted violence feels naive at best, and negligent at worst.
18. Red Hook Summer (2012)
About a young boy named Flik (Jules Brown), who travels from Atlanta to New York to spend the summer with his pastor grandfather (Clarke Peters), Lee’s coming of age film is a return of sorts. Not only does he reprise his role of Mookie from Do The Right Thing, he goes back to the shoestring guerilla filmmaking that made She’s Gotta Have It a classic. The first half of the film, centered around Flik, lacks Crrooklyn’s refined intertwining of childlike whimsy and family angst. Rather, you wish Lee pulled focus to Peters’ pastor for a fuller interrogation of how religion can be wielded as a tool for unearned self forgiveness and rash forgetfulness. Still, the double dolly (featuring Colman Domingo) is among Lee’s best, fully encapsulating both the rage felt by Domingo’s character and the shock of the parishioners, too. It’s a cathartic composition that nearly reaches the artistic levels of Melvin Van Peebles’ inspirational use of the famed shot in 1967’s The Story of a Three-Day Pass.
17. Summer of Sam (1999)
A theme Lee would return to in 25th Hour, when senseless violence grips a city like New York, it grasps its people, too. During the 1977 killing spree by David Berkowitz (“The Son of Sam”), Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a womanizing hairdresser cheating on his wife because his Catholic guilt restricts him from having the kind of sex he wants with her. Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a queer prostitute and punk, just returned to the neighborhood after living in England for a year. Meanwhile, the men in their neighborhood are practicing street justice by openly accusing residents in their tight knit Italian community of being the serial killer, setting in motion dire consequences. Lee makes purposeful tonal decisions like playing the audio of Reggie Jackson’s World Series homerun as the backing track to a brutal murder, or showing the internal psychology of Sam in gritty, grimy scenes featuring a talking dog, to capture the unthinkable fear and psychology of troubled people.
16. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
“What would you do if you couldn’t play anymore, Bleek?” asks Indigo Downes (Joie Lee), one of Bleek’s (Denzel Washington) two girlfriends. A self-absorbed trumpeter only capable of committing to his music, Bleek’s dependency on his instrument began at childhood, when his parents taught him to sacrifice friends and fun rather than forgo his craft. A character study about the debilitating personal and moral sacrifice imposed upon artists — to the point of losing their self-worth and the worth of others — Mo’ Better Blues isn’t without missteps (the Jewish club managers do veer into cringy antisemitic stereotypes). Still, you can sense how this might have been a tribute by Lee to his jazz musician father Bill Lee. Their relationship, however, deteriorated in less than a year with the release of Jungle Fever, making this film the last one senior Lee would score for his son.
15. Jungle Fever (1991)
Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a successful architect living in Harlem with his daughter and wife. When the Italian Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) is hired as his secretary, long evenings turn into steamy nights as the pair begin a salacious affair. Is this real love or are the pair simply having a case of jungle fever? It’s an allegorical film moved by the spellbinding effects of addiction. There’s Flipper’s stern father, the Good Reverend Doctor (Ossie Davis) who’s a zealot to religion and his wife Lucinda (Ruby Dee), a mother dedicated to her drug-addled son Gator (an incredible Samuel L. Jackson) who, in turn with his girlfriend Vivian (Halle Berry), are tied to crack. Flipper and Angie are similarly addicted. But once the realities of the world — prejudiced cops, friends, family, and strangers — encroach upon them, the spell breaks and they must decide what is actually real. It’s never subtle (nothing with Lee ever is). But the conversation around interracial dating (particular to the era) is fearless nonetheless.
14. He Got Game (1998)
Denzel Washington and Lee’s most unassuming collaboration combines a few of Lee’s great passions: tenuous father-son relationships, Black fatherhood, and basketball. Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is a former local basketball legend released from prison under the agreement that he gets his son, top high-school recruit Jesus (Ray Allen), to sign with the governor’s alma mater. It’s a film that sharply connects the exploitation of Black athletes with the abuse of Black men by the criminal justice system. While pulling a memorable performance from Washington is an easy layup, Lee’s audacious decision to cast Allen is a true slam dunk. Not only did it provide the film with gorgeous basketball sequences — avoiding the trap of rote gameplay — Allen holds his own in a turn that demands so much care, rage, and disappointment, you feel cheated that he and Lee never took to the court again.
13. Clockers (1995)
Under different circumstances, Ronald "Strike" Dunham (Mekhi Phifer) could be someone else, someone more. He certainly has the brains, but systemic racism and pernicious cops leave him with limited possibilities. So, he works as a clocker (dealer) for Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). In a film about dashed dreams, Strike wants to be a train engineer, hence his model train set. But those hopes quickly dim when Rodney orders Strike to kill another dealer. Soon, the cops (played by Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) are onto him and his bond with Rodney begins to break. The complex and human rendering of Strike — at a time when Black drug dealers were characterized solely as thugs and super predators rather than victims — was later followed in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. (In fact, a similar tiny crown to the one on Rodney’s car dashboard can be seen on Black’s dashboard in Moonlight).
12. 25th Hour (2002)
Since its 2002 release, 25th Hour’s stature as among Lee’s best films has only grown. Some of that residue stems from Lee’s daring choice to braid the tragedy of September 11th into the story of Monty (Edward Norton), a drug dealer living his last day of freedom before his father (Brian Cox) drives him to prison to begin a seven year jail sentence. David Benioff’s script often lags behind Lee’s graphic eye. The women are underwritten (somehow worse than usual for a Lee joint) and Monty’s story isn’t inherently interesting. But Lee’s filmmaking — his control of rhythm and pace, and his visual storytelling — has never been better. The way he ties together the “fuck you” mirror speech with the ending soliloquy by Cox, aches from the page. His use of Ground Zero for the conversation between an attuned Philip Seymour Hoffman and skeezy Barry Pepper is bold. The neon blue club scene, a perfect snapshot of the moment, place, and verve of the city, transcends from being a mere time capsule. Lee elevates a myopic story into an elegiac cry of shared grief and resounding pain.
11. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Lee’s cinematic revolution began in black and white with Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns). In his debut feature, Darling is a sexually free Black woman dating three Black men: the patronizing Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a self-absorbed Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and the loud-mouth, gold-chain wearing Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). Lee wasn’t the first Black filmmaker to invite audiences to witness the different possibilities of Black life, art, commerce, and fashion (Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, and Gordon Parks did so decades earlier). Rather, Lee introduced the world to Brooklyn as he saw it. A borough filled with a new, young, and vibrant generation of Black folks, particularly Black women with new professional and independent possibilities. While the film does still remain sweeping in that regard, its later rape scene (a sequence Lee still regrets filming) leaves a clear blotch on its legacy.
10. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Released at the height of Black Lives Matter protests that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd, Lee’s war drama sees a quartet of Black Vietnam vets returning to the Southeast Asian country to retrieve the remains of their lost comrade Stormin Norman (the late Chadwick Boseman). Here, it’s clear that Lee learned from many of the mistakes he made on The Miracle at St. Anna. For one, the treasure here (a loot of American gold) is more thematically tangible as a repatriation of wealth, Black reparations, and capitalist excess. The tonal shifts between history lessons, high comedy, sharp combat, and acute tragedy move with greater nimbleness. Most of all, the relationship between these Black men — particularly the fraught father-son relationship shared by Paul (a spellbinding Delroy Lindo) and David (Jonathan Majors) — organically explores their shared love, fissures, and demons. The MAGA voting, PTSD-afflicted Paul extrapolates as much in a blistering monologue by Lindo, that acutely summarizes the past and contemporary betrayal by America of its Black citizens.
9. Inside Man (2006)
While it's rare to see Lee helm such a conventional Hollywood thriller, that shouldn’t take away from the artistry on display. In this perfectly constructed heist flick, Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are called to a bank to resolve a hostage situation instigated by a band of thieves led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). The robbery, however, is only a prelude. In the background to Lee’s homage to Dog Day Afternoon is another cat-and-mouse game between the bank’s owner Arthur Case (a deliciously wretched Christopher Plummer), and the fixer he hires to retrieve a secret hidden in a safety deposit box, Madeleine White (a cold, calculating Jodie Foster). An endlessly enjoyable and crowd-pleasing mystery, Inside Man is simply a well-made and well-acted piece of escapist entertainment.
8. Girl 6 (1996)
One of only two Lee films written by a woman (in this case, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks), it’s also Lee’s most underrated picture. The film begins with Judy (Theresa Randle), an actress, auditioning for Quentin Tarantino (playing himself). The audition appears to be going well. That is, until Tarantino, without prior warning, demands that Judy remove her shirt. Judy does so but is humiliated. “This is what Blackness has come to mean… it’s a certain image of Blackness that Hollywood believes can be negotiated by any culture maker,” bell hooks said of the scene. As an alternative to Hollywood, Judy turns to a phone sex career under the moniker “Girl 6.” Armed with Parks’ progressive script, Lee navigates the world of sex work with an empathetic lens, and remains ever so playful in sequences where Judy imagines herself in Carmen Jones, as Helen Willis on The Jeffersons, and Pam Grier as Foxy Brown. The kind of roles that, as a Black woman, somehow appear out of reach for her in a supposedly more inclusive, contemporary climate.
7. Get on the Bus (1996)
One of Lee’s great achievements is setting in motion the resurgence of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dees’ acting careers so late in the winter of their lives. While Do The Right Thing is their most memorable collaboration, for Davis, Get On The Bus might be the peak of his renaissance. As Pop, an older Black man regretful of missing Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s March on Washington (and now traveling with a group of Black men to the Million Man March), Davis commands every corner of the frame with a balance of resoluteness and levity. On this cross-country roadtrip — where race, sexuality, masculinity, religion, and politics are discussed among this disparate crew — Davis is sage mentor, friend, and father to a generation still trying to grasp their voice. While the film’s reverence for Louis Farrakhan has not aged well, the documentation by Black people of their own stories (a theme returned to in Da 5 Bloods) culminates to Lee’s most devastating final shot: a pair of handcuffs at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
6. School Daze (1988)
The closest Lee has come to making a musical, his sophomore effort, set among the fraternities and sororities of the imagined HBCU Mission College, is among his most ambitious. It also features Lee’s most committed performance, wherein he portrays Half-Pint, a Gamma pledge desperately trying to be accepted. Based on Lee’s own experiences at Morehouse, School Daze traverses through the customs and pageantry of HBCUs set to big melodies and extravagant dance numbers, which extrapolate issues (colorism, classism, and open misogynoir) Black folks are still wrestling with. The colorful step show and the vibrant, socially charged Madame Re-Res Dance (set at a salon to critique the politics of Black women’s hair) are so unique in their design and composition, they’re a reminder that Lee might be the best musical film director of his generation.
5. Do The Right Thing (1989)
On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, Mookie (Spike Lee), a delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, navigates a neighborhood on the verge of turmoil. With a pizza box in hand, Mookie snakes past Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and his thumping boombox; he sees the drunkard man of honor Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and the watchful Mother Sister (Ruby Dee); and he observes a trio of older Black men blowing the sweat away with idle gossip sitting underneath an umbrella as the specter of the police looms ever-present. Lee displays a firm touch on composition (the use of red), the narrative and sonic storytelling (the film building from Rosie Perez dancing to “Fight The Power” to the movie’s later explosion), and the balance between a deep ensemble who always seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.
4. Malcolm X (1992)
From the word “go,” when Lee and Denzel Washington (playing the titular revolutionary) strut down a Harlem street in their vibrant zoot suits, Malcolm X moves with epic reverberations. Memorable scenes like the extravagant Lindy Hop swing social, West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) accusing Malcolm of theft, and the double dolly levitating Malcolm toward his eventual end imbue the film with a mythic quality. On its face, Malcolm X can feel like a conventional biopic. But that would be missing the point. At a time when Malcolm X was still a controversial “public” enemy — the radical, firebrand antithesis to Martin Luther King Jr. who proclaimed the white the devil — Lee dared to give him a 201-minute Hollywood treatment usually only reserved for white figures. Through the very telling of this story, Washington’s performance, and the stirring eulogy offered by Ossie Davis, Lee normalized and memorialized Malcolm X for the next generation of revolutionaries.
3. 4 Little Girls (1997)
Similar to Martin Scorsese, one often forgets Lee’s prowess as a documentary filmmaker (a prime example is When The Levees Broke). But for the purposes of this list, 4 Little Girls, Lee’s heart-wrenching recounting of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that robbed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, is exceptional. Shot by Ellen Kuras and edited by Sam Pollard, Lee retraces that day and its personal and political impact by speaking with the family and friends of those lost. The interviews capture intimate stories of the girls’ personalities, hopes and desires, humanizing them beyond their martyrdom. It also gives space to those left behind to share their grief and anger. Lee avoids traps most modern documentaries fall into. The few celebrity talking heads appear only near the end. He relies on extreme close-ups of the subjects rather than staid medium shots. He doesn’t impose a linear, upward trajectory on history. Through oral history, he reminds us of the bad that happened and the racial violence that continues to afflict America today.
2. Bamboozled (2000)
Pierre "Peerless Dothan" Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a jaded television executive, steers us through the internal racism of mass entertainment when he decides on a reckless gambit. In a bid to be fired so he might leave this toxic white environment, Delacroix and his assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) decide to create a modern minstrel show replete with Blackface, tap dancing, and a house band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys (played by the Roots). To star in this show, he recruits two hoofers (played by Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover) and an emcee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, an underrated and integral collaborator for Lee). It’s all bound to fail — until it doesn’t. Mantan: New Millennium Minstrel Show is a hit that inspires widespread controversy and big ratings.
You’d think Lee would then use the film to wholly demonize Blackface and all who use it. But Lee takes a nuanced approach to Blackface, namely denouncing it and the racist stereotypes it wrought, while highlighting the work and artistry by the Black performers who used the makeup. The final montage, an aching reel of racist caricatures, movies, and cartoons, is among editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard’s best work. It articulates the painful past and soul-crushing negotiations that ultimately obliterated generations worth of Black talent. Messy and ambitious, satirical and mournful, Bamboozled is a work of genius threatening to spin into dribble.
1. Crooklyn (1994)
What makes Lee’s early films so special is the closeness derived from family. His sister Joie Lee appears in 10 of his films, and his father Bill Lee composed the score for the director’s first four films (after Jungle Fever, Lee and his father experienced a falling out). And while Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues gives us a window into the father-son dynamic shared by the two, they do not give us full insight. After all, the director isn’t an only child. That’s why Crooklyn’s script — written by the filmmaker, his sister Joie, and brother Cinqué Lee — is so nuanced and full.
Based on the trio’s childhood (specifically from Joie’s perspective), the film follows nine-year-old Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) and her brothers as they watch the disintegration of their musician father (Delroy Lindo) and hardworking mother’s (Alfre Woodard) marriage. Unlike Jungle Fever, which is told with a tinge of anger, Crooklyn is a coming-of-age tale about pulling understanding out of disappointment. Troy goes from idolizing her father to recognizing his lesser qualities (a role that Lindo is exceptional in). It’s also about remembering the quirks and unforgettable characters of a neighborhood, along with being a tribute to an indomitable Black mother (a tremendous Woodard). Featuring Lee’s best use of the double dolly — a tripped out Troy flying toward the black-blue sky — Crooklyn is a quintessential Brooklyn movie that shows Lee at his best, focusing on family, community, and the colorful, indelible neighborhood of Bed-Stuy.
Robert Daniels is a Chicago-based film critic with freelance bylines in the New York Times, in the Los Angeles Times, at RogerEbert.com, at IndieWire, and in the Criterion Collection. He has written widely about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.