(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)
It’s difficult to rank the films of Spike Lee in order of best to worst because, quite frankly, the auteur hasn’t really made a horrible film. With nearly 20 feature films under his belt and more to come (his upcoming WWII film looks promising) Lee has of course put out his share of minor works, but even the projects that failed still had enough of the director’s signature characteristics-fascinating characters, intriguing dialogue, and race relation undertones-and ultimately are merely cinematic experiments gone wrong. Consider this a list of best and minor works of one of America’s finest filmmakers.
THE BEST FILMS
It may seem obvious to start top the list with arguably Lee’s most critically acclaimed and polarizing films, but it’s without a doubt his sole masterpiece. It still remains one of the most fascinating and honest looks at race relations in America ever to hit celluloid, while also gives us a convincing glimpse into the life of one of the many New York City neighborhoods. As the sweltering hot summer day carries on, tensions brew with the colorful residents of Bed-Stuy. From Lee’s Mookie to Radio Raheem, Da Mayor, Buggin Out, Sal and of course scene stealing Sweet Dick Willie, all of the film’s players witness the turn of events as we do, with eyes wide open. While some argue that this film fails to say anything new about racism in America, it could be said that it succeeds by making people think about this controversial topic. In the end we’re left questioning if anyone did the right thing. To quote Mister Señor love Daddy, “And that’s the double truth, Ruth.”
The trick of Lee’s 2006 four-part HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina is that the film is not about the storm that tore through the Gulf coast but rather the city of New Orleans. Much of the film is spent examining the engineering flaws and many conspiracies surrounding the breach of the levees, not to mention the government’s disregard for lower classes, with Lee never once pointing any fingers. The rest of the time we get a healthy dose of the history and culture of what many believe is America’s most unique city. While certain wards of “The Big Easy” remain in shambles Lee argues that the spirit of New Orleans has endured.
One of Lee’s often-overlooked films from 1995 is also one of his best. Adapted from Richard Price’s novel of the same name, “Clockers” is Lee’s take on the drug trade told from the point of view of not only the cops enforcing the streets but also the pawns or clockers pushing the goods. The film opens with a vivid montage of real-life crime scene photographs depicting the shear brutality that a bullet inflicts on the human body. Later while surveying a fictional crime scene the film’s main detectives (played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) and the citizen onlookers appear eerily unfazed by the dead body, as if numb from the street violence that is now a routine in their lives. This is the tragic message conveyed by Lee in Clockers – the destructive nature of the open-air drug market is here to stay.
4) Malcolm X
This is Lee’s sole epic film and rightfully so. Working from Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X, Lee set out to tell this controversial figure’s whole story. From his early years as a young hoodlum to his rise as one of America’s most important political leaders, Denzel Washington (whose Oscar loss to Al Pacino in 1993 for Scent of a Woman remains one of the Academy’s biggest blunders in its history) devours the role as X. While some argue that the film is a bit long its scope was needed to capture who this man was.
5) 25th Hour
Besides having one of the best closing ten minutes of any film, “25th Hour” is an intense character study of an ex-drug dealer living it up on the eve of a seven-year prison term. In typical Lee fashion it’s also much more. Lee has always had a love for New York City and almost all of his films share this love with the audience. “25th Hour” was Lee’s first post 9/11 film and without a doubt his first honest look at modern day NYC. Many draw comparisons of this film to “Do The Right Thing,” specifically a certain race rant but if anything Lee uses this film as an extension of the ideas presented in Thing.
Another of Lee’s smaller HBO documentaries is the must see 4 Little Girls, which uncovers the past surrounding the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
THE MINOR FILMS
1) Girl 6
Hands down Spike Lee’s most forgotten, throwaway films. “Girl 6” is about an actress turned phone sex operator and the crazy odyssey she goes on. Sure, a character like this would be ripe for exploration, but Lee does it in the most cliché manner. Rather than presenting a complicated person who is stuck in a unique career we got a raunchy comedy that begs to be taken seriously but is ultimately forgettable.
2) She Hate Me
Upon its release critics around the country labeled this one of the worst movies of 2004. While this misunderstood film is hardly Lee’s best, it’s also one of his most ambitious. Its biggest fault is it tries to do too much. At its core it’s about corporate corruption in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals and the importance of whistleblowers. It’s also a bit of a screwball comedy about impregnating lesbians. Lee did comedy better early on with She’s Gotta Have It.
Lee grew up in a family of musicians. His father Bill Lee, a jazz bass player and composer, would eventually score a number of Spike’s first films. “Mo’ Better Blues” is his ode to jazz and growing up around music. Unfortunately, the only memorable part of this film is its beautiful score by modern jazz sax master Branford Marsalis. Denzel Washington delivers in “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game,” and most recently The Inside Man. The same can’t be said here.
Like “25th Hour,” this is a film about New York City. It’s set back in the infamous summer of 1977 amidst the “son of Sam” murders. Of course there are more layers to the story than just catching a murderer. Despite standout performances by Adrian Brody and John Leguizamo this film follows too closely in the footsteps of “Do The Right Thing” in regards to its small Italian neighborhood ablaze with fear and prejudice.
5) Jungle Fever
It’s a shame that the only notable part of this film is Samuel L. Jackson’s side story as Gator Purify, a larger than life crack head living in the wake of his successful younger brother played by Wesley Snipes. While the film tackles issues of acceptance and interracial relationships, Jackson steals the show. Too bad his onscreen time is limited.