Ranked: Spike Lee Films from Worst to Best

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In honor of Red Hook Summer, we're taking a look back at a filmography of right things, wrong things, and "meh" things.

Like Billy Zane’s character in Titanic, Spike Lee believes in making his own luck. In 1983, his hour-long student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads was showcased as part of New York’s New Directors/New Films series, the kind of break that would have inspired many an ambitious twenty-six-year-old director to get an agent and wait for the offers to start pouring in. Instead, Lee set up his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, and got to work. The rest, as they say, is history. Lee's new joint (we're contractually obligated to call them that), Red Hook Summer, is his twentieth feature film. To honor that, we're taking a look at his filmography to see how it stacks up. (We've omitted the documentaries and feature films that were strictly performance-based, like Passing Strange.)

17. She Hate Me (2004)

A sperm-donor comedy whose title manages to simultaneously refer to, A) a forgotten publicity stunt by a forgotten player in the forgotten XFL, and B) the climactic scene from The Bride of Frankenstein. There ends the complete list of things that are sort of interesting about this movie, aside from the fact that Lee thought there would be people who wanted to watch over two hours of it. When a director can get a film like this all the way from the planning stages to the editing room without anyone saying to him, “But boss, people will say you’ve gone nuts,” it’s time for a reality check.

16. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

Eager to burn up the industry cred he’d accumulated with Inside Man, and show Clint Eastwood (whose World War II movie Flags of Our Fathers Lee attacked over its lack of black soldiers) how it’s done, Lee summoned up all his ambition, a $45 million budget, and a ticket to Italy, and managed to slop together the most overblown, unfocused, simplistic wartime epic of the post-Saving Private Ryan era. At nearly three hours, it's challenging to sit through, and its ambitions, while noble, are largely outweighed by the broadly-drawn characters and middling nature of its combat scenes.

15. Bamboozled (2000)

Shortly after releasing The Kings of Comedy, Lee rushed the release of this “satire” to make sure that nobody would get the wrong idea and think he still had a sense of humor. Trying to get himself fired, a black TV executive (Damon Wayans) pitches a minstrel show (performed by black entertainers in blackface) as a series. It makes it onto the air and becomes a sensation, which proves either that America is exactly as racist as it was 150 years ago, or that the critics who complained that Lee was cashing in on a demeaning stereotype when he used his Mars Blackmon character in sneaker commercials hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

14. Jungle Fever (1991)

When Lee is feeling especially ambitious he can get so busy pounding on all the hot-button issues that can be connected to a subject that he forgets to include a story or any real characters to go with them. Jungle Fever, which is ostensibly about an interracial love affair (between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra) is an especially ripe example of this tendency. Snipes, who Lee propelled toward stardom a year earlier in Mo’ Better Blues, looks as if he’s just trying to figure out why he agreed to play a character named “Flipper Purify.” The star-of-tomorrow moment goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whose scenes (as a doomed crackhead named Gator) seem to be intermission breaks from a different film.

13. School Daze (1988)

Presumably this full-color production (complete with musical numbers!) at least suggests the debut Lee had wanted to make instead of She’s Gotta Have It, and he should begin every day for the rest of his life getting down on his knees and thanking God that he didn’t get to make it. It deserves credit for broaching the subject of racism among African-Americans, but as filmmaking, much of it is just embarrassing, from the title to the naked sincerity of the “Everybody wake up!” ending. On the plus side, it helped make a hit of E.U.’s “Da Butt” and create a too-brief vogue for the D.C.-based go-go scene it had come out of.

12. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

A sprawling, unfocused, cliché-ridden tribute to jazz, with original music by Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and Denzel as a sexy-stud trumpeter. Maybe because it’s not clear who or what Washington is meant to be besides a Movie Star in a Movie Star Part, but a pre-stardom Wesley Snipes walks off with the picture, as a musician with the hard-to-resist name of Shadow Henderson. Not especially successful in the wake of Do the Right Thing, it still managed to create a minor controversy over the anti-Semitic caricatures of two money-grubbing nightclub owners, played by John and Nicholas Turturro. Always his own worst enemy in such matters, Lee helpfully explained that the characters weren’t anti-Semitic at all, then added that even if they were, nobody had a right to complain until black filmmakers had created enough anti-Semitic images in movies to catch up with all the racist images included in films by white directors.

11. Girl 6 (1996)

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrote this character study of a young actress (Theresa Randle) who takes a job as a phone sex operator. This was apparently Lee’s answer to those who criticized the depiction of (or seeming lack of interest in) women in many of his previous movies, but it’s neither especially sexy (except for when some random image happens to sync nicely with the Prince songs on the soundtrack) and nor all that invested in the central character. It’s worth at least considering the possibility that he made it just for the sake of having his new rival for the face of American indie movies, Quentin Tarantino, play himself as a raving ass. Also, one of the few times in his career when Lee didn’t seem to be even trying to break the two-hour running time mark.

10. Summer of Sam (1999)

Summer of Sam is set in the Bronx, and features confused, hate-filled Italian-Americans freaking out in the extreme heat during a summer dominated by a city-wide blackout and the Son of Sam murders. Unfortunately, this shrill, hysterical movie belongs to a genre that only a brazen New York chauvinist of a moviemaker would want to dominate: a nostalgic recreation of what, for most people, would count as the worst couple of months of their lives. Notable for the sight of Adrian Brody in period-accurate punk plumage and what is reportedly an official record for use of the F-word and its derivatives in a non-documentary movie.

9. Get on the Bus (1996)

Naturally, someone as obsessed with outrage and spectacle as Lee thought the Million Man March — a 1995 gathering of black men at the National Mall — was a crowning historical event. His contribution to the one-year anniversary of the March was this film, in which an impressive group of actors (including Andre Braugher, Harry J. Lennix, Charles S. Dutton, Isaiah Washington, Ossie Davis, Bernie Mac, Albert Hall, Wendell Pierce, and Roger Guenveur Smith) board a bus and set out for the March, forming a microcosm of contemporary African-American manhood. Watchable, and certainly well-acted, but it’s like a footnote to an entry that got dropped from the encyclopedia — for all the historically-significant moments Lee's either chronicled or created, the March isn't one of them.

8. He Got Game (1998)

Denzel Washington gives a strong performance as a convicted wife murderer who is released from prison for a week on orders from the governor. The goal? To see if Washington can persuade his son to enroll at the governor’s alma mater so he can play for the basketball team. NBA star Ray Allen, who plays the son, is almost impressive in his acting debut. But neither of them can do much to change the fact that the movie is ridiculously overlong at two hours, fifteen minutes, or the fact that the plot sounds like an idea for a comedy that went terribly, terribly wrong.

7. Crooklyn (1994)

Lee’s follow-up to Malcolm X was this uncharacteristically mild-mannered, autobiographical film about growing up in the Beford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn in the early 1970s. (Though it must be said that Lee didn't grow up in Bed-Stuy — his family lived in what Rosie Perez called "artsy-fartsy Fort Greene.") His sweetest film, it’s a casual tribute to his family (represented here by Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, and, as the little girl through whose eyes we see most of the action, ten-year-old Zelda Harris), though it may be most deeply felt as a tribute to the music of the era, lovingly compiled on the soundtrack.

6. Clockers (1995)

Lee’s adaptation of Richard Price’s novel about drug dealing in a Brooklyn housing project was co-produced by Martin Scorsese, who was even kind enough to lend Harvey Keitel as a more-or-less sympathetic cop. The cast also includes the young Mekhi Phifer, in his movie debut, as a dealer caught between the cops and his increasingly dangerous boss (Delroy Lindo), and forced to choose between sticking to a life with no future and the terror of disappearing into the unknown. Ambitious and well-made, but the material was a little too familiar when it came out, and that was before The Wire came along to kick its ass.

5. 25th Hour (2002)

Lee’s whitest movie, starring Edward Norton as a soulful Irish-American drug dealer on his way to serving a seven-year prison stretch, transformed itself into an elegy for the damaged city when the Twin Towers fell during pre-production. A sad, scuffed-up, and painful film with beautiful performances from a cast that also includes Brian Cox, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin. It also features two of Lee's most memorable montages: the "Fuck you" sequence in which Norton's character lays down a litany of racist complaints to a mirror, and the film's closing sequence.

4. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Lee’s (mostly black-and-white) sex comedy remains a model for turning the budgetary limitations and lack of resources of indie filmmaking into an asset, a source of ingenuity, and a chance to put things onscreen that never made it there before. In the process, he not only made his name synonymous with cutting-edge filmmaking (and his face and voice a valuable property for commercial licensing) but turned Brooklyn into a trendy piece of real estate, as well as the setting for a thousand op-ed pieces on the new Black Renaissance.

3. Inside Man (2006)

After seeming indifference to his box office reputation for years, Lee surprised everyone with this breezy, confident popcorn feature, which may be the best time any New York filmmaker has had in a bank since Dog Day Afternoon. Denzel Washington’s harried-but-charming Mr. Smooth role here might be Lee’s thank-you gift to the actor, after all the heavy lifting he’d been required to perform in their previous collaborations.

2. Malcolm X (1992)

If you take Lee and his work according to the terms he’s set down, this three-hour-and-twenty-minute biopic, starring Denzel Washington and featuring cameos by Nelson Mandela, Bobby Seale, and Al Sharpton, has to go near the top of any list of his work, if only for its size and the scale of its accomplishment. Said accomplishments include making a public issue of whether any other director would be allowed to make the movie and gathering contributions from celebrity donors to finish the film when the studio refused to further extend the budget during post-production. The finest of his many collaborations with Denzel Washington.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Whatever else Lee does, odds are really good that this will still be the first thing mentioned in his obituaries. It captures how it feels to be alienated and angry on a very hot day in New York at a time when the city’s inhabitants’ capacity for getting along seemed to be at an all-time low, and it also captures — recklessly, excitingly — how it feels to have a camera at your command, the energy of the streets rising to meet you, and an intense desire to have your say. Some critics made fools of themselves at the time by warning that it might inspire outbreaks of violence at theaters. As if to maintain a natural balance, Lee made a royal ass of himself by having a fit when somebody else’s movie (sex, lies, and videotape, as it happens) won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.