Back to IndieWire

Spike Lee’s 9 Best Movies — IndieWire Critics Survey

We asked critics to name the greatest movie Spike Lee ever made, and their answers reflected the depth of the director's incredible career.

“Do the Right Thing”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of “BlacKkKlansman,” which opens in theaters this Friday, what is Spike Lee’s best film?

“4 Little Girls” (1997)

Jacqueline Coley (@THATJacqueline), Rotten Tomatoes

“4 Little Girls”

I was sorely tempted to choose “Do The Right Thing” as Spike Lee’s best film and it seems the logical choice. What Spike did with “Do The Right Thing” forever changed cinema, for filmmakers everywhere, but especially for African Americans. It’s brilliant, that’s beyond dispute but, it’s not his best.

His best is a quiet little documentary he released in 1997 about 4 little girls who were murdered by the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. “4 Little Girls” power is in the faces. The faces of girl’s families the member of the Civil rights movements and are impossible to shake. The vicious and casual racism and oppression of black people in Birmingham prior to the Civil Rights movement as chronicled in the documentary make the bombing and its aftermath even more dramatic. Lee was first inspired to tell a fictional story about the 16th street bombings but in the depths of his research, he realized a political documentary was the better idea. Comprised entirely of first-person accounts, news clippings, and sporadic music from the time, this to me is Spike’s most political film but also his most artful.

The care he took to document the horrific and heartbreaking story is something often lacking in his later work. I think that Spike especially wanted to guarantee he got it right. He owed it to the girls, to their families and he wanted to honor their sacrifice. The girl’s death so outraged the nation that the Civil Right’s Act was signed into law the following summer. With that political power attached to their legacy, the documentary had to hold the same weight and I think Spike is the only director equal to the task. Preserved in 2017 at the Library of Congress National Film Registry as being culturally, and historically significant, it’s Lee’s second film to receive this distinction after “Do the Right Thing” and just edges out the former as more deserving of the honor.

“25th Hour” (2002)

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice and /Film

"25th Hour"

“25th Hour”

I watched “25th Hour” days after I learned I wouldn’t be able to renew my visa and stay on in New York. After seven years of being an immigrant, I’d become a New Yorker; after twenty-four hours, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) would be leaving New York too, albeit under different circumstances. He’d be going to prison upstate, sure, but the New York he’d leave behind was a broken, angry New York, yearning for catharsis.

Long before I sat down to watch it for the first time (on a beaten-up 35mm print, no less), “25th Hour” became the first great post-9/11 film, even thought it never started out that way. Lee had been attached to the project for months before tragedy struck, and rather than ignoring the attacks, he made the ground zero crater his backdrop.

As Monty begs his friends to cave his face in — he claims he’s too pretty to survive in prison — what it really feels like he’s asking for is to be broken so badly that he can be rebuilt. His misplaced, vitriolic rant at every borough, every immigrant and every person of colour (the very tapestry of the city) was to be cut from the film, but Lee rightly fought to keep it; the speech stands in beautiful contrast to his father’s monologue at the end, as Monty is wheeled away to prison, his face beaten to a pulp. “You’re a New Yorker,” echoes James Brogan (Brian Cox), after two hours of sporadic shots of a city rising from ashes. “That won’t ever change.”

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week

Argh, it’s going to happen, isn’t it? I’m going to be the white dude talking about how “25th Hour,” the Spike Lee movie that’s largely about white people, is his best! I’m really not certain that it’s better than “Do the Right Thing” (it’s certainly less important), but it is the one that means the most to me personally. It’s not so much that I particularly relate to Edward Norton’s Monty Brogan, a drug dealer staring down his last day of freedom before a prison sentence, and more that I saw it just a few months after moving to New York in 2002. Lee’s portrait of the city, particularly the way he links a “Do the Right Thing” callback (Monty’s mid-movie rant in which he slags off as many racial and socioeconomic groups as he can) to the movie’s emotional climax (wherein Monty’s father, beautifully played by Brian Cox, gives him an extended what-if about the life he might make a desperate run for), images of New York’s many groups returning to see Monty off. It feels like a defining New York statement, especially in the wake of 9/11, which caused Lee and novelist David Benioff to make up-to-the-minute tweaks to a story written in a pre-9/11 world. The movie’s immediacy remains as palpable as it was back in December 2002, when, as a new New Yorker, “25th Hour” pretty much destroyed me.

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film) – Freelancer for The Wrap, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla

There are only a few films in Spike Lee’s expansive oeuvre that he didn’t write and don’t directly explore the African American experience, which is central to his storytelling power. Of those projects that didn’t emerged from his creative mind, “25th Hour” is by far the most thematically layered and emotionally complex example of his abilities as a director. Though focused on a white man, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), the tale is still set in Lee’s beloved New York. Entirely constructed over the course of Brogan’s final day as a free man before facing seven years in prison, the movie discusses alimentation, loneliness, regret, forgiveness, and the possibility of second chances. As the protagonist roams the streets with his faithful companion, a dog he rescued, the encounters that shape this drama illuminate Brogan’s past and the obstacles he will face if he gets out.  Bolstered by a dream team of a supporting cast that includes the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin,“25th Hour” stands as a testament to post-9/11 America coated in melancholy and subdued hope. Spike Lee’s directorial voice shines throughout as he exalts the elements that to him are more interesting in the screenplay, and we can tell it’s his doing.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson

The more I dive into “25th Hour,” the more it continues to impress me after 16 years.  Every project Spike Lee touches, large or small and across a wide range, is wondrously provocative with poetic purpose.  Nothing he puts his effort into ends up empty or meaningless.  I feel like “25th Hour” is Lee’s best mixture at combining the poignantly prescient with lasting lyricism, yet still remains underseen and underappreciated.  From Edward Norton’s alarming and powerful bathroom mirror rant to the Peyton Farquhar-level fantasy finish narrated by Bryan Cox and all of the high drama in-between, David Benihoff’s first script adapting his own debut novel absolutely sizzles with shattering passion anchored to cagey narrative struggles of friends, family, fear, action, and reflection.

Not a performance is off-key out of this stellar ensemble.  The next aspect that elevates “25th Hour” is its peak of craft meeting the poetry.  Composer and jazz extraordinaire Terrance Blanchard’s richly rattling score takes your breath away from the “Tribute in Light” opening credits sequence onward and never lets you go, swelling often.  Then-newcomer cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s angular camera soaks in all of the sun and seediness of the daylight and the glow and grim of the evenings for a complete visual experience of the film’s many shifts of setting and mood.  I don’t think a Spike Lee film has looked or sounded better since.  “Malcolm X” may be historically larger and “Do the Right Thing” may remain his most groundbreaking and important, but, for me, “25th Hour” is his most complete film for writing, aesthetics, performance, and punch.

Caroline Madden (@crolinss), Screen Queens, Fandor

“25th Hour” is Spike Lee’s operatic valentine to New York City in all of its splendor and frustrations. More than any film during that time period, it deftly captures the existential malaise of post-9/11 America. Lee boldly defied other filmmakers who tried to conceal any references to 9/11, immediately felt in the haunting low-angle opening shots of the Tribute of Light. Montgomery’s harried twenty-four hours before he is sent to jail for seven years is informed by the cultural cataclysm that surrounds him and his plight serves as a microcosm for America’s grapple with a grave tragedy. The racist rant he unfurls is a soliloquy of Shakespearean heights, a poignant manifestation of the vitriol and misery that plagued New York in the wake of that devastating September morning. In the end Monty has no one to blame but himself, Lee’s subtle suggestion that America should reflect on its own culpability.

Edward Norton anchors the film with an arresting performance, rounded out by the strong supporting talents of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, and Rosario Dawson. Terence Blanchard’s elegiac score is awe-inspiring, punctuated by Bruce Springsteen’s magnetic end credits song “The Fuse” from his own September 11th masterpiece The Rising. It simmers with the same electric tension that looms over Lee’s grieving metropolis. Spike Lee uncovers the pain of America’s past and contemplates its uncertain future in his poetic meditation on redemption, revenge, friendship, and honor. “25th Hour” is Spike Lee’s most emotionally textured film and finest ode to New York City, one that elegantly encapsulates the post-9/11 zeitgeist.

“Bamboozled” (2000)

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelance


“Crooklyn” and “Bamboozled.”

“Crooklyn” has (cinematographer) Arthur Jafa, food stamps, the good Knicks content, and an unrelenting yet tender energy. It’s a film made by community, not only in collaboration with Jafa and the actors, but with Lee’s family (in particular his sister, making it less “male” than his films are usually).

“Bamboozled” is what I hoped “BlackKklansman” would be: uneven and deep, nailing issues of its era (the “bling” era) perfectly, and in a way that feels classic, rather than stuck on topicality.

“BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Caroline Tsai (@carolinetsai3), The Harvard Crimson


In peak Spike Lee form, “BlacKkKlansman” was decidedly the most politically on-the-nose, topical film that screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where I was lucky enough to be in the audience for its premier. Based on the true story of a Colorado police officer, it has a distinctly stranger-than-fiction un-realness, its narrative body prefaced by clips from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (the film largely responsible for inaugurating a new era for the KKK) and “Gone With the Wind” (the Oscar winner that attracted controversy for romanticizing slavery)—and ends provocatively with footage from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year, which struck a particularly potent emotional chord.

 

With such hefty material, the film vacillates between irreverent comedy and rattling gravitas, striking a difficult, well-executed balance in tone. There are few filmmakers like Lee, long heralded for bringing issues of race and identity to the big screen, who can expertly deal in complicated political themes and still hold an audience rapt. “BlacKkKlansman” is a heady example of Lee’s prowess as a filmmaker and a timely reminder of the impact that a film as powerful and subversive as this one can have.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine


I am someone who is impressed by longevity, staying power, and consistently excellent artistic output. A few names that come to mind for that criteria include: Meryl (duh), Denzel (double duh), David Sedaris, J.K. Rowling, Alfre Woodard, Elton John, and, of course, Spike Lee. Spike has been in the game for decades, so it’s hard for me to name only one film which I think is his best. For me, the film I most associate him with is, of course, “Do the Right Thing.” It was his breakout, and it broke ground, too. I had the privilege to see and review his newest film, “Blackkklansman,” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. And I believe it is – if not *the* best – certainly one of his best films to date. It’s one of those films that stays with you long after it’s over, as you turn it over in your head, and replay the most powerful bits in your mind. (Come to think of it, all of Spike’s films have had that effect on me.) “Blackkklansman” feels particularly relevant now, and I urge you to see it when it comes out this month. It will stay with you; I guarantee it.

“Chi-Raq” (2015)

Sean Mulvihill (@NotSPMulvihill), FanboyNation.com


My choice for Spike Lee’s best film is “Chi-raq” (don’t get me wrong, “Do the Right Thing” is an incredible film). Spike’s 2015 overlooked masterpiece tried to warn us as to the impending nightmare on the horizon. “This is an emergency,” the film boldly declares before the opening credits roll. With “Chi-raq” Spike Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmont bring Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” into the 21st century, turning the 2,500-year-old play into one of the most powerful and culturally relevant films of recent memory.

In “Chi-raq,” it’s clear that Spike’s had enough. He was never a filmmaker that was one to play nice, but with this film sees the legendary director taking swift, precise swings at a number of targets. Gun violence? Pow! Police militarization? Bam! Toxic masculinity? Zap! How America’s past racism enables inequity today? Thwack! Even with the myriad of social topics that Spike Lee is tackling with “Chi-raq,” the film is never preachy. It’s a film that’s sexy, colorful, funny, tragic, horrific, and fed up.

The next time some right-wing gun nut rhetorically asks, “Why don’t liberals talk about gun violence in Chicago?” You can answer, “Spike Lee made a whole movie about it and you can watch it on Amazon Prime right now.” Throughout “Chi-raq” Spike Lee is answering practically every bad faith argument that only enables more carnage. The national dialogue on these issues hasn’t changed a bit, so every righteous point made in “Chi-raq” still stands to this very day, and, unfortunately, I imagine for years and years to come.

It’s a testament to Spike Lee’s immense talents that he can reach all the way back to Ancient Greece and pull from it the inspiration for a film that was not only of its time but ahead of its time. It seems that in 2015 that people didn’t want to confront America’s many demons. There was a collective lull of complacency that gave those old demons new life and led to political horror show we’re living in today. I firmly believe that had “Chi-raq” been released in today’s political climate, it’d be a legitimate Oscar contender (as it should’ve been in 2015). But we can’t go back and right yesterday’s wrongs. We can only learn and move forward. Maybe next time someone urgently proclaims, “This is an emergency” we’ll actually listen before it’s too late…again.

Carl Broughton (@Carlislegendary), Editor-in-Chief for thefilmera.com


“Please pray for my city, Too much hate in my city, Too many heartaches in my city, But I got faith in my city.This Chi-Raq and I love that you, You can’t take it away from my city, Some can’t relate to my city, They die every day in my city.”

Nothing excites me more than being able to discuss Spike Lee’s best film “Chi-Raq” on this week’s critic survey. Mix Chicago with Iraq you get the word “Chi-Raq” which is used to describe the warzone like areas of Chicago. Quite a few are probably wondering what makes this film a cut above the rest, and the answer is “Chi-Raq” is the one film where you can stop watching it, and immediately turn on the news and see the same events. The film is a literal wake up call to America, and even though the story is about fictional characters it might as well be a documentary. People are out here dying, the city is hurting, and people are being failed. It is not a joke, people who don’t know about Chicago’s history, and what is happening to need this film in their veins.

The funny thing is “Chi-Raq” takes it even further by addressing racism through a formal institution, and how black people are not only oppressed by violence, but by the government, and male masculinity. As a black man, this is one of the most important films to me and is the first film I think of when people ask me what film addresses current black issues. I didn’t discuss the film’s style, its acting, or how it was shot because it doesn’t matter. “Chi-Raq” is all about sending a message, and waking up your emotions that you push down while watching the news. I will finish by quoting David Ehrlich’s thoughts on the film ” clear-eyed, playful and pissed as hell. Long, but a long time coming, Spike Lee is always at his best when it’s an emergency, and this is a *God damn* emergency.”

“Crooklyn” (1994)

Alonso Duralde (@aduralde) TheWrap, What the Flick?!, Linoleum Knife, Who Shot Ya?


I like to think that every living director’s best film is the one they haven’t made yet, so I’m gonna go with my favorite Spike Lee movie, particularly since I think it’s one that often gets short shrift: “Crooklyn.” Written by his siblings Cinqué and Joie Lee, this is a loving but unsentimental look back at a house full of children growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1970s with a father (Delroy Lindo) trying to make it as a jazz musician and a mother (Alfre Woodard) doing her best to keep the household together. It’s one of the cinema’s great looks at childhood, and the period detail (and pop songs) are letter perfect. But it’s also a great coming-of-age story, as daughter Troy (the exceptional Zelda Harris) finds her voice and her identity in an apartment full of boys, and as she learns to face life without her beloved mother. This is a movie that thrills and moves me every time I see it, and I can never get through the final scenes without ugly crying.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989)

Kambole Campbell (@kambolecampbell), Birth.Movies.Death, Little White Lies, Crack Magazine

The best film out of decades of great work, “Do The Right Thing” is the best Spike Lee film, potentially one of the greatest films of all time, as I’m sure many writing here will agree. Spike Lee’s scattershot approach to filmmaking has never been better suited than to this tale of Bed-Stuy in an uncomfortably hot summer, with digressions and conversations on topics that may never stop being relevant – from conversations about the idea of being ‘beyond’ blackness to gentrification and scenes of police brutality. Watching the film today, Radio Raheem’s death recalls the killing of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers. With the film ending with a dedication to the families of victims of police brutality then, one shudders at the thought of how long that list of dedications could be now.

From the electric opening dance number by Rosie Perez in the opening credits set to Public Enemy’s immortal ‘Fight The Power’, to the explosion of anger after Radio Raheem’s death as Sal’s Pizza burns to the ground, there aren’t many movies that share energy on the same level as this one. The speeches done by talking heads, Bill Lee’s swooning score, the interludes by Samuel L Jackson’s Mr Señor Love Daddy as he gives us the double truth, Ruth E Carter’s vibrant costume design, everything gels into a portrait of a neighbourhood that feels truly alive, which is part of why the anger and frustration simmering beneath feels so viscerally disturbing.  It’s a film so vivid and expressive that it feels beyond its contemporaries, and like it hasn’t aged at all – and it’s sort of damning that the film, now nearly 30 years old, could play the same now as it did then. I could watch “Do The Right Thing” hundreds of times, and it’d still feel fresh.

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood


Come on, can it be anything else but “Do the Right Thing”? While “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze” were vibrant and innovative in their own ways, Lee crystallized his status as one of America’s preeminent black filmmakers with the hard-hitting soul of his third feature. As a vivid, larger-than-life snapshot of life in primarily black communities, there’s nothing like it; few films can boast eye-opening sequences like Rosie Perez’s liberating opening credits dance to “Fight the Power,” or Radio Raheem’s passionate monologue on love and hate. To a player, Lee assembled one of the finest ensembles in recent memory, and Ernest Dickerson’s powerful cinematography captured the feeling of a hot summer day like few films have before or since. (Also, god DAMN does the soundtrack bang.)

Remarkably, tragically, “Thing” touched a raw racial nerve that has only escalated since the early days of Rodney King and the LA Riots (which “Thing” eerily prophesied). It’s hard to look at Raheem’s murder by uncaring police officers, and the community outrage that followed, without seeing echoes in LA, Ferguson and Chicago – and the ensuing conversation about whether Mookie was right to throw the trash can is repeated on Twitter for every new cell phone video of a black man getting shot in the back. Tempting as it is to occasionally roll your eyes at the obviousness of Lee’s racial polemic in his works, at times like these it really seems we need on-the-nose reminders of the evils of everyday racism. Racial hatred doesn’t have to take the form of Klan hoods, tiki torches or MAGA hats. Sometimes, it’s just an Italian pizza owner refusing to put black people on his Wall of Fame.

Even without its continued relevance, “Thing” would still be a remarkable piece of filmmaking. In the world of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald and Philando Castile, it’s downright vital.

Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Freelance for Thrillist, Slashfilm and Vulture


As much as I’d like to pick some out-of-the-box, hot take answer, I have to be straight up with this one. ‘Do the Right Thing’ is not only the best Spike Lee film, it’s one of the best films ever made. I saw it for the first time a few years ago and was completely blown away. From Rosie Perez’s iconic opening credits dance to Radio Raheem’s “love/hate” speech, the movie is alive with a kinetic energy I’d never seen before, with moments of complete hilarity and utter brutality. It’s a purely American film in all of its grandeur and horror. I saw it just a few months after Ferguson, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, and was taken aback by how eerily specific it felt to that case. That unfortunately timeless quality is part of the film’s beauty, but just a small slice of it; it’s a film about life, love, family, friends, and community. Lee has made other great films, but ‘Do the Right Thing’ is his magnum opus.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for FreshFiction, SassyMamaInLA


“Do The Right Thing” felt like a powder keg went off when it was released. I saw it during my formative teenage years and it blew my mind in the way the narrative and its sentiments were delivered with such wit, intelligence and pressing sense of urgency. It was the first time I connected that art could be filled with political protest. Coupled with incredible performances and an all-timer of an opening credits sequence, Lee’s themes still are relevant today. This is a staggering, timeless work of magnificence.

Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room


First seeing “Do the Right Thing” when I was 16 was one of my all-time most mind-expanding viewing experiences. It knocked me over and left me reeling with one awestruck thought in my head: “Oh my God, movies can be like that?” Another 16 years later, I’m still amazed by the relentlessly agitated style, the total disregard for traditional modes of subtlety, and, of course, one of the most bracing, devastating endings in American cinema. It’s a messy movie, but I find those are most often the ones I want to apply the word “masterpiece” to.

Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu

“Do the Right Thing”

Universal

“Do the Right Thing” Remains my absolute favorite Spike Lee film. As much as I can admire about how Lee has grown as a filmmaker and explored similar themes or unrelated ideas about race relations altogether, his 1989 effort remains a great to watch on a hot summer day or any other time of the year. Working as very human story existing in a heightened reality, Lee’s cast of colorful characters matched with his brilliantly realized depiction Brooklyn allows for a feature that naturally works in its important themes and eventual tragedy. Thanks to the level of humor and confidence in the numerous excellent performances, the racial tension that eventually boils over speaks well to what Lee has continued to tackle head-on, as opposed to merely giving credence to one of the many issues that our society continues to deal with. With the brilliant “BlacKkKlansman” right on the horizon, it remains rewarding to watch and acknowledge just how tremendous one of Lee’s earlier films continues to be, despite the sad reality of the fact that this latest feature still has to address the same societal problems.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today

American director Spike Lee, center, waves to photographers from the terrace of the Festival Palace in Cannes, France. Lee is promoting his film "Do the Right Thing" at the Cannes Film Festival. Starring actors, from left, Richard Edson, Joie Lee, Ossie Davis and Ruby DeeSpike Lee Cannes 1989, Cannes, France

“Do the Right Thing” at the Cannes Film Festival. Starring actors, from left, Richard Edson, Joie Lee, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee with Spike Lee.

Remy de la Mauviniare/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For me, Spike Lee’s 1989 “Do the Right Thing” remains, almost 30 years later, not only his best film but also one of the best cinematic meditations on race in this country. Today, it is as relevant as ever in its presentation of the twin issues of prejudice and white privilege that make the conundrum of the American experience so difficult to solve. With a dynamic cast that includes Lee, himself, as well as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Lee’s sister Joie, Giancarlo Esposito, Roger Guenveur Smith, Bill Nunn and more, the movie opens with a magnificent neon burst of color and music as Perez dances to Public Enemy’s raucous anthem of the era, “Fight the Power.”

From then on, it is one charged sequence after another, all the separate elements leading inexorably towards the violent police-brutality-ignited riot at the end. Seeing it now, it’s disheartening to see how little has changed in the time since it was made, which is why everyone should see it again. Articulate in its discussion of complicated problems, “Do the Right Thing” shows that in the hands of a great filmmaker, cinema and polemics can mix in perfect harmony.

THIS ARTICLE CONTINUES ON THE NEXT PAGE.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox

Newswire