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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”

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

A lot of people are going to say “Do the Right Thing,” and I will join them. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the vibrant immediacy that’s key to Lee’s artistry. Three decades on, it continues to confound and even frighten audiences who expect tidy answers and resolutions. Despite its enveloping stylization (that sequence of fourth wall-breaking zooms is an all-timer) and vivid capture of a specific location and atmosphere, its complex thematic approach is starkly identifiable from the opening titles to the final two quotes at the end (one from Martin Luther King, Jr. and one from Malcolm X). From a direct standpoint, the issues invoked in “Do the Right Thing” remain deeply relevant. But Lee’s talents as a filmmaker take their invocation from individual plot aspects and turn them into something much more accomplished and bold.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore Magazine

I’m tempted to say “25th Hour” because it’s wildly underrated, still my favorite post 9/11 New York film, and a mournful masterpiece. But how can I not choose “Do the Right Thing”? It’s everything that makes Spike great: his humanity, his humor, his clear-eyed exploration of race, and his freewheeling, vibrant, sensual style. It feels young in all the best ways—like it’s bursting with enthusiasm, ideas, and irreverence. At just 32, Spike was already completely in command of his gifts. To me, it’s a Top 100 American film of all time. The fact that it wasn’t nominated for—much less win—Best Picture in 1990 (that honor went to “Driving Miss Daisy”—which really twists the knife) is a permanent blight on the Academy.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

This is probably the most obvious answer, but it’s obvious for a reason. Spike Lee’s best film is “Do the Right Thing.” Has there ever been a more vital, urgent look at racism in America? From the opening credits sequence, featuring Rosie Perez aggressively dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” it’s clear that the movie is going to be full of passion and anger. Lee delivers on that promise big-time. “Do the Right Thing” examines how racism pervades our daily lives, in ways big and small. It forces us to confront our own prejudicial thoughts. It makes us question whether we do enough to stand up against prejudice when it rears its ugly head.

The performances are outstanding all the way around, and the powerhouse ending leaves you shaken. It’s impossible to walk away from the film unmoved. Amazingly, Lee is able to address his subject deeply while also making the movie entertaining and occasionally funny. “Do the Right Thing” is the very definition of a masterpiece. Almost thirty years after first seeing it, I still think about it at least once a week.

Edward Douglas, @EDouglasWW, The Weekend Warrior

Anyone who doesn’t say “Do the Right Thing” should probably just give up their film critic cards. Sure, Spike has had other good and pertinent movies since then like “The 25th Hour” and “Jungle Fever”–and a couple overrated ones like “Inside Man”–but “Do the Right Thing” still stands up to this very day, and all his other work was built upon that, including his latest.

Rob Thomas (@robt77), Capital Times

I know this is the most obvious answer, but “Do The Right Thing.” Kinetic and thoughtful, funny and horrifying, colorful and bleak, its incendiary brilliance in capturing the complexities of race in America becomes only more evident as the years go by. And we’re still arguing over what “the right thing” is.

Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), B9

It’s gotta be “Do The Right Thing”. For me there’s no other answer, Spike Lee’ grand entrance in pop culture imaginarium is also his greater work because to this day it sumarizes in a so easy manner a totality of complexe and historical racial relations in United States, at the same time it serves as a coherent elegy to the apparent conflict between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s ideologies. I just find fascinating how this movie can approach with a comprehensive way each one of the different sides existent on its huge cast of characters, from the italian sons that grow resentment and prejudice towards the black community it serves to more radical people as Radio Raheem and Buggin’, and simultaneously to this move don’t deny anyone their pain and anger when the time comes, as the climatic riot on Sal’s Pizzaria proves. As Raheem says somewhere in the middle of the story, this movie is truly a tale about love and hate – and it knows how to play that on the screen.

Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia

“Do The Right Thing” by far. An intelligent script, brilliant performances, and the only one that has Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power!”.

“Malcolm X” (1992)

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Shondaland, Harper’s Bazaar

“Malcolm X.” Spike Lee has helmed numerous great films, but I consider “Malcolm X” his opus because it epitomizes what I believe to be his thesis as a filmmaker: a distinctly black film told from the point of view of a black character profoundly challenging the system. Bolstered by immaculate performances (Denzel Washington’s career-best), “Malcolm X” is not only a quintessential Spike Lee joint but should be considered mandatory viewing for audiences across the spectrum.

Emmanuel Noisette (@EmansReviews), Freelance for TheMovieBlog, E-Man’s Movie Reviews

“Malcolm X” is easily Lee’s best film. Most notably this was due to Denzel’s classic performance in the main role. To Lee’s credit, he was able to capture the emotion and impact of Malcolm’s character on the society of the time. Even the most subtle shots prove to still stand out as memorable moments in the film. One that immediately comes to mind is the quick shot of Denzel directing the crowd with only a couple of hand gestures. This movie was a perfect storm for Spike Lee as he was able to effectively communicate to audiences familiar and unfamiliar with “Malcolm X” in a timeless manner. You know Lee did a wonderful job with this film when you know the outcome of the main character and the tragic ending still can affect you. I feel pretty comfortable saying that “Malcolm X” is not only Lee’s best work, but also his masterpiece.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Birth.Movies.Death., Bright Wall/Dark Room

First off, let it be known that this is an incredibly difficult decision. After deliberation and back-and-forths to boot, I’m going with “Malcolm X” (1992). It is an achievement of epic proportion–clocking in at nearly three and a half hours–written and directed in Lee’s very particular taste and style. Every aspect (e.g. production design, costumes, casting choices, screenwriting, et al.) showcased and cemented Lee as one of the medium’s greatest storytellers. And above all, it is a due telling of the life of one of American history’s most significant, influential public figures. Like many painfully biased works on Malcolm X have not done, it does the radical activist justice, portraying the complexity of his story with intrigue and nuance. It runs on the very awe that Malcolm X himself inspired in the country. Other finalists include “Jungle Fever”, “25th Hour”, and, of course, “Do the Right Thing”, all of which are remarkable in their own way.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

Because of pop culture trends, people have a way of attaching themselves to iconic figures without fully understanding their politics. In 1992, as a 12-year-old from small town Minnesota, I didn’t quite understand the backstories of historical figures like Che Guevara and Malcom X — I just associated them with images from mainstream media, and the concept of revolution. After my oldest sibling joined the U.S. Navy in 1991, I distinctly remember a major shift in my moviegoing experiences, as secretly-rented films like “Boyz n the Hood,” “Juice” and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” opened up my eyes to issues that didn’t apply to my own life experiences.

Back then, I remember seeing “X” hats everywhere, especially in the Chicago area where my brother graduated from basic training. When I finally got my hands on a “Malcolm X” VHS, I was struck by how much I didn’t know, along with the complexity of the subject’s life story. Lee’s directing/structure offered clarity, and Denzel Washington’s performance ensured that I wouldn’t forget what I’d seen. When I think of Lee’s entire body of work, “Malcolm X” immediately stands out as the film that challenged me the most upon a first viewing, and at a unique time in my life. Most importantly, it led me to the library.

“Red Hook Summer” (2012)

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Getting started as a filmmaker–and an innovative, original one–is hard. Starting over with another artistic leap ahead is harder, which Spike Lee does with–to borrow a phrase from Mr. Godard–his second first film, “Red Hook Summer.” There, he comes home cinematically, with a film made as independently as his earliest work, and films in Brooklyn with an avid documentary eye that unfolds a wide spectrum of experience and probes an extraordinary, both agonized and joyful, depth of feeling, while developing a complex web of complex, tender, unsentimental relationships with an amazingly deft touch. He pulls history to the foreground of daily life and finds in those textures some enduring, iconic symbols for the spiritual dimension of his own art. Working close at hand, looking intensely at the locale and the community, he looks deep into himself and unleashes a vital energy that continue to inspire his new and still-rising trajectory.

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