For more than 30 years, Spike Lee has been one of the most dominant forces in American filmmaking. Lee has often been fearless in his career, choosing projects that are confrontational or unexpected, and almost always delivering something more interesting than what you might expect. Like everyone from David Fincher to James Cameron, Lee’s best movies are some of the best American movies of the last 50 years. Some of them are about Black history, but not all of them fall into that category. Wherever they fall, here are our picks for the top 10 movies by Spike Lee.
Da 5 Bloods is a genre exercise shot through with contemporary ideas. The film tells the story of four Black Vietnam vets who return to the country decades later in search of treasure they buried there during the war. Delroy Lindo’s ferocious central performance is one of the best in any Lee movie, and this is also one of the best action movies Lee has ever made. Thanks to the beautiful vistas of Vietnam, Da 5 Bloods also feels like one of Lee’s most ambitious efforts, and it’s one rife with references to other iconic movies that Lee surely loves.
When the Levee Breaks, the story of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath, proved that Spike Lee can be as sharp a documentarian as he is a fiction filmmaker. At times, When the Levee Breaks is among the angriest films in Lee’s entire filmography. What makes the entire four-part series so moving is that it also documents the resilience that has allowed New Orleans to rise from the ashes of that disaster and become the vital, music-filled community that it was in the days before it was devastated.
Proof that Lee has still got plenty left in the tank, BlacKkKlansman tells the fascinating true story of a sheriff’s deputy who goes undercover with the KKK after he is mistaken on the phone for a white man. Thanks to a star-making performance from John David Washington as well as reliably excellent work from Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman managed to speak urgently to the Trump presidency even though the film is set in the 1970s. It’s one of Lee’s more overtly political and of-the-moment movies, and few directors could pull it off the way that he manages to.
Easily one of the most controversial movies of Lee’s career, Bamboozled is a send-up of network television in an era when it was dominant. Although its satire may have seemed far-fetched to viewers in 2000, Bamboozled has only seemed more and more prescient as the years have gone by. The minstrel show at the film’s center, and the eagerness with which the network takes advantage of it to its own ends, feel almost startlingly relevant more than 20 years later. Few films in Lee’s film have held up better, even in spite of a mixed critical reception upon its release.
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