For close to 40 years and through more than 30 full-length features, more than a dozen documentaries and countless commercials and music videos, Spike Lee has secured his place among the most creative and original filmmakers of his generation.
Through explosive language, vivid imagery and nuanced music, Lee constantly found new ways to tell the African American story.
In recognition of his 40th anniversary as a Morehouse College graduate, we offer 10 Essential Spike Lee Joints to binge.
Lee’s latest movie was also his first film to garner him an Academy Award nomination for best director. The searing true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s played perfectly against America’s current political backdrop. Lee did go on to win his first Oscar, for best adapted screenplay.
Key Character: Ron Stallworth, the black Colorado Springs detective who conned the KKK.
Key Quote: Ron Stallworth: "With the right white man, we can do anything."
Lee’s ability to capture the moment was never more evident than his story about 15 men boarding a bus from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March. Reading like a play, each rider represented a segment of the Black Man: a single father and his teen son who was already in the system; a biracial cop and a gangbanger; a vain and homophobic actor and a gay couple; an old man who has seen it all and a college student who is trying to see it all.
Key Character: George, the bus driver of the Spotted Owl.
Key Quote: George: "We gettin' ready to ride into history man. We can't roll to Washington with that boy in shackles."
8. “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990):
Marking his first collaboration with Denzel Washington, Lee’s story of a singularly-focused jazz musician still holds up quite well. While jazz music and John Coltrane set the mood and tempo, the movie also marks Lee’s entry into a cinematic genre that blacks had been largely left out of - romance.
Key Character: Bleek Gilliam, the jazz musician.
Key Quote: Bleek: "I may have been born yesterday, but I stayed up all night."
7. “Crooklyn” (1994):
Although it stars heavyweights Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, Lee turned his emotional 1970s autobiographical love letter over to the brilliant young Zelda Harris, who like Mother-Sister in another Brooklyn movie, quietly watches everything around her with dignity, humor and grace.
Key Character: Troy, the baby girl.
Key Quote: Woody: "As God is my witness, I want the best for you and the children. But I have got to do it in my own way."
6. “Inside Man” (2006):
One of Lee’s highest-grossing films, he paired Denzel Washington with Jodie Foster to show that he could play the big Hollywood game, while making a good old-fashioned, fun heist flick.
Key Character: Dalton Russell, the bank robber.
Key Quote: Detective Keith Frazier: "Look out, bad guys! Here I come."
Opening less than 10 years after he graduated from Morehouse, every single frame in the movie resonated deeply and emotionally with anybody who called an HBCU home. Only his second film, it set the stylistic foundation for every Lee project since. Said Lee to the AJC: “I can’t count how many people who told me they went to a black school because of ‘School Daze.’ People come up to me and say, ‘Spike, you changed my life.’”
Key Character(s): Dap and Big Brother Almighty, two sides of the same coin.
People walked into this movie expecting a love story between a brother from Harlem and a white girl from Bensonhurst. But the real love story was between Lucinda Purify and her crack-addled son Gator. Samuel L. Jackson won best supporting actor at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but the great Ruby Dee won our hearts when she got on her knees and wailed “Mommy’s here,” to painfully mourn and cradle her dying son.
Key Character: Gator, the crack addict.
Key Quote: Gator Purify: "Mama, I smoked the color TV!"
3. “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986):
Fresh out of film school, Lee raised $175,000 to shoot his black-and-white debut about a woman who juggles three lovers effortlessly until she doesn’t. This was Spike’s official introduction to the world, and marked the beginning of a new era of black film making. It also gave us perhaps Lee’s greatest character: Mars Blackmon.
Key Quote: Nola Darling: "It's really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I'm not a one-man woman. Bottom line."
Brooklyn. Sweltering heat. Patriarchal shop owner with hints of gentrification. Mookie. Public Enemy. Radio Raheem. Da Mayor. Buggin’ Out. Sal. Frank Sinatra. Chaos. Chokehold. Riot. Classic.
Key Character: Mookie, the pizza delivery man.
Key Quote: Buggin' Out: "How come ain't no brothers on the wall?"
1. “Malcolm X” (1992):
This is the masterpiece Spike Lee was born to make. Clocking in at over three hours, Lee’s biopic of the charismatic leader is epic on every conceivable level. Starring Denzel in the title role, the movie avoids the typical biopic traps and allows the audience to watch the hero change in ways that are difficult, challenging, uncompromising and in Lee’s style, funny. It is still a shame that Denzel didn’t win an Academy Award for best actor.
Key Character: Malcolm X, the icon.
Key Quote: Malcolm X: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!"
Ernie Suggs is an enterprise reporter covering race and culture for the AJC since 1997. A 1990 graduate of N.C. Central University and a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, he is also the former vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. His obsession with Prince, Spike Lee movies, Hamilton and the New York Yankees is odd.