When it comes to films that shine a light on issues not typically spoken about in the open, no one has done it as effectively as Spike Lee. For over three decades, Lee has brought his uncompromising creative vision to audiences worldwide, even when it stoked controversy. The Academy Award-winning director, screenwriter, actor, and producer has an impressive film resume that runs the gamut from biographical to comedic to the socially conscious. For an overview check out Spike Lee's greatest hits and misses below.
1. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Loosely based on Ron Stallworth's 2014 autobiography Black Klansman, Lee finally won an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation. The movie tells the incredibly true story of two police officers – one Black and one Jewish – who infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan organization of domestic terrorists in the early 1970s. The themes of the film, released after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and features footage from the event, are on par with contemporary issues. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% fresh.
2. She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Made with a bare-bones budget of $175,000, Spike Lee's first feature-length movie kicked off his illustrious career, scoring 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. The romantic exploits of a free-spirited young woman and her three suitors go from comedy to drama when the men find out about each other. Lee showed such major talent on a small budget that in 2019, the U.S. National Film Registry preserved the film at the recommendation of the U.S. Library of Congress.
3. Pass Over (2018)
Two homeless Black men named Kitch and Moses occupy a street corner in Chicago. They dream of better lives while trying desperately to survive in the streets. Their complete dependence on one another sustains them through the days and nights of being harassed and dodging gunfire. Lee adapted this film from the script of a stage play by Antoinette Nwandu, which has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%.
4. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Lee earned widespread critical praise and a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating for his first Netflix movie chronicling the journey of a band of five Vietnam War veterans called the Bloods. During their time in Vietnam, they buried a stolen cache of gold, intending to retrieve it later. Forty years later, the four surviving Bloods return to Vietnam to search for and reclaim their ill-gotten loot. However, their trip has its share of danger. This was also one of Chadwick Boseman's final films before his tragic death in 2020.
5. Do the Right Thing (1989)
The late 1980s was a volatile time for race relations in the United States, and nowhere was that more evident than in the five boroughs of New York. Set in a Brooklyn neighborhood during a sweltering summer day, the racial animosities between the different ethnic groups culminated in the murder of a young Black man. The film was highly controversial when it was initially released. Still, with a 92% Rotten Tomatoes score, it is now considered one of the best films ever made.
6. Malcolm X (1992)
Lee chronicles the life and death of activist Malcolm X in this epic film, which earned an 89% Rotten Tomatoes rating. It clocks in at more than three hours but is masterful in a way that keeps viewers engaged for every minute. Primarily based on Alex Haley's 1965 book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee depicts how Malcolm Little went from a tragic childhood and a troubled adulthood into one of the most prominent figures of the 1960s civil rights movement. Of all Spike Lee's greatest hits and misses, the director still names this film as one of his proudest achievements, having funded it with donations from Black celebrities.
7. Get on the Bus (1996)
Released a year after 1995's Million Man March, the film chronicles the cross-country bus ride of 15 fictitious Black American men. Each of the men has a distinct background. While they share a common destination, they find many differences in philosophies, opinions, and political and religious views. Notably, this is one of the few films that Lee directed that he did not appear in. It also received an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
8. Inside Man (2006)
Frequent collaborator Denzel Washington paired up with Lee for this 2006 thriller about an NYPD hostage negotiator working to save a group of hostages locked inside a bank by a gang of robbers led by Clive Owen. Complicating matters is Jodie Foster's fixer, who wants to protect a terrible secret about the bank's founder. The movie's surprise ending begged for a sequel, which was released in 2019 but did not involve Spike Lee. However, this film scored an 86% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
9. Chi-Raq (2015)
Chi-Raq combines Chicago and Iraq because of the violence and lawlessness that plague the city, which rivals that of the Middle Eastern country. The movie centers on two violent Chicago street gangs and their significant others, who have had enough of the endless cycle of violence and collectively go on strike against their men. Based on the Greek play Lysistrata, Lee manages to lighten up a heavy topic with comedy and music. Rotten Tomatoes gives this movie an 82% fresh rating.
10. Jungle Fever (1991)
Never one to shy away from the topic of race and all the controversies attached, Lee courted and welcomed them with his 1991 feature film. The extramarital affair between a married Black architect, played by Wesley Snipes, and his Italian-American secretary, played by Annabella Sciorra, and the reactions of their friends highlight the tensions that interracial couples frequently encounter. Halle Berry made her big screen debut in this movie, with an 80% Rotten Tomatoes score.
11. He Got Game (1998)
As the most famous New York Knicks fan, it was only a matter of time before Lee tackled the subject of basketball. In this 1998 vehicle starring Denzel Washington and newcomer NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen, the complicated relationship between a son with lofty goals and his incarcerated father who never realized his dreams shines a spotlight on the shady aspects of the collegiate athlete recruiting system. Rotten Tomatoes assigned He Got Game an 80% fresh rating.
12. Crooklyn (1994)
This coming-of-age story, co-written by Lee and his two siblings, is a semi-autobiographical view into their childhood. The film's main character is a nine-year-old girl named Troy Carmichael, who lives with her four brothers and parents in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The Carmichaels are a loving family, but the tension between the mother, who has a career as a teacher, and the father, a ne'er do well musician, threatens to weaken the family foundation. The film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 79%.
13. 25th Hour (2002)
Monty Brogan, a narcotics dealer in New York City who is about to report to prison, spends his final hours of freedom tying up loose ends in his personal and “professional” life, including finding the identity of the person who betrayed him. The movie's events take place in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and Lee tactfully integrated the shellshocked feel of the city into the film. 25th Hour is based on David Benioff's 2001 novel of the same name. The 2002 movie also scored 79% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer.
14. Clockers (1995)
Clockers, the nickname for street-level dealers, is a woefully underrated Spike Lee crime drama with Martin Scorsese as the producer. A clocker named Strike is ordered by his boss, a ruthless narcotics lord named Rodney, to kill another dealer he believes has been stealing from him. When the dealer turns up dead, Strike finds himself facing the anger of his crew and the suspicions of the police. Lee adapted the script from Richard Price's 1992 novel of the same name. The Rotten Tomatoes score of 73% shows audiences slept on this movie.
15. Mo' Better Blues (1990)
Blues music plays as big of a role as the actors and makes its presence known in nearly every scene. A famous trumpet player named Bleek Gilliam finds himself navigating a minefield, partly of his own making. He has two girlfriends that he tries to hide from the other: his band's saxophone player, who is both a professional and potential romantic rival for one of his girlfriends and a gambling-addicted manager with mounting debts to the wrong people. The Branford Marsalis Quartet Featuring Terence Blanchard provided the soundtrack. Overall, Rotten Tomatoes rates the film at 71%.
16. School Daze (1988)
Colorism, the politics of hair, and classism are not new subjects for people of color. However, people did not speak about them in public and non-minority spaces in the 1980s. Lee uses a fictitious historically Black college as the backdrop for these once-taboo topics. The theme of how skin color correlates with socioeconomic status is evident throughout the film, including the entertaining but thought-provoking musical numbers. Rotten Tomatoes scored this Spike Lee Joint at 59%.
17. Red Hook Summer (2012)
Brooklyn once again features prominently in this 2012 coming-of-age movie. A 13-year-old boy named Flik is sent from his Atlanta home to spend the summer with his grandfather in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing project. His grandfather is a devout preacher with a secret revealed towards the film's end. During his visit, Flik encounters a cast of memorable characters, including a girl who is a member of his grandfather's church, gangsters, and a pizza boy who is an integral character in Do the Right Thing. This movie earned a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 57%.
18. Bamboozled (2000)
Lee embraced controversy again with his 2000 film, a searing satire about the media's stereotyped portrayal of Black American performers. When a Black television executive sets out to prove to his boss that he is Black enough, he creates a contemporary minstrel show in which the Black actors perform in blackface. Believing the show would get him fired, to his dismay, he discovers that it is a hit with his boss and with viewers. The topic is uncomfortable, which was the whole point of this film. Rotten Tomatoes gave Lee a 53% rating for this outing.
19. Summer of Sam (1999)
The Son of Sam killings in the summer of 1977 had New Yorkers on edge. But David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, is not the main character of this film. Instead, Lee focuses on two friends living in The Bronx experiencing their struggles and their circle of family, friends, and neighbors, terrified that a serial killer could be living among them. One of the script's cowriters was Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos. The Rotten Tomatoes score of 50 shows it's not one of Lee's better films.
20. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
After coming into contact with an ancient relic, the anthropologist turns into a ravenous, immortal, vampire-like creature with a taste for human blood. Lee's venture into the horror film genre received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. A loose remake of the 1973 movie Ganja & Hess, it has a 48% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
21. Oldboy (2013)
The 2003 cult classic from South Korea is hard to top, so props to Spike Lee for the attempt, even if it fell way short of the original. Josh Brolin assumed the lead character in this tale of brutal vengeance after being locked away in a hotel room for 20 years without cause before suddenly being released without explanation. Lee was unhappy with the edits of this film, which may help to explain the 39% Rotten Tomatoes score.
22. Girl 6 (1996)
Theresa Randle stars as an aspiring young Black actress frustrated by the lack of acting opportunities. Looking to pay the bills, she takes a job in the adult entertainment industry, answering phone calls from men. Her boss refers to her as Girl 6, and as time goes on, she comes to find out that not only do her acting skills come in handy, but she also enjoys her work. This comedy fell flat with audiences and critics, hence the 39% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
23. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
During the Christmas holiday in 1983, a retired World War II Buffalo Soldier worked as a postal clerk. When he seemingly recognizes a customer, he shoots the man without explanation. In a flashback 39 years earlier in war-torn Italy, the audience sees the Buffalo Soldier as a young man and the man whose life he would claim decades later. During the flashback, we know why the soldier acted as he did. The on-location filming in locations such as Italy, the Bahamas, and the U.S., couldn't elevate critical or audience interest, and the film could only muster a 33% score from Rotten Tomatoes.
24. She Hate Me (2004)
Spike Lee's venture into social satire was a commercial and critical flop, scoring only 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. John Henry Jack Armstrong is an Ivy League-educated executive who loses his job after being framed for securities fraud. With his assets frozen and unable to maintain his lifestyle, he starts a business where he impregnates women who want a baby. Despite his $10,000 fee per service, Armstrong's business is quite successful, leading to complications he could have avoided while trying to clear his name. Of all Spike Lee's greatest hits and misses, this one is a very big miss.