5 Best Movies to Watch by Spike Lee

Staff & contributors

There’s a vein of reality running through He Got Game that gives this Spike Lee joint a sense of pulsating immediacy. For one, the young basketball prodigy at its center is played by real-life pro Ray Allen, who shot the movie during the sport’s off-season period in 1997. The film also draws on a host of other ballers and ancillary figures — including coaches and commentators — to fully convince us of the hype around Jesus Shuttlesworth (Allen), a Coney Island high-schooler who’s been crowned America’s top college draft pick.

Lee takes this premise to much more interesting places than sports movies usually go. The plot is a melodrama of sorts, in which Jesus’ incarcerated father Jake (a top-tier Denzel Washington) must convince his son to declare for the governor’s alma mater in exchange for a reduced sentence. The pair are estranged — Jake is in prison for the death of Jesus’ mother — making this as much a tense examination of family and forgiveness as it is a sports movie. And what a sports movie it is: Lee makes his love of basketball not just abundantly clear but also infectious, opening the film on soaring, balletic images of the sport that suggest it’s no mere game, but something unifying, artistic, and ultimately salvatory.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Al Palagonia, Arthur J. Nascarella, Bill Nunn, Bill Walton, Charles Barkley, Chasey Lain, Denzel Washington, Dick Vitale, George Karl, Hill Harper, Jennifer Esposito, Jill Kelly, Jim Boeheim, Jim Brown, John Turturro, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Kim Director, Leonard Roberts, Lonette McKee, Michael Jordan, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Rick Fox, Robin Roberts, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ron Cephas Jones, Rosario Dawson, Roy Williams, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Zelda Harris

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R

Spike Lee burst onto the filmmaking scene with this, his groundbreaking debut feature. Low in budget but high in confidence, She’s Gotta Have It fizzes with unadulterated energy and style, from its kaleidoscopic opening montage of stills depicting life in Brooklyn (where the film is set) to the joyous direct addresses of its credits sequence.

The film helped to kick off the independent movie movement in the US, and it’s not hard to see why: Lee and his collaborators (including members of his own family) do so much with so little here. Along with its visual and formal inventiveness — including ample fourth wall breaks and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s momentary, audacious switch from black-and-white to vibrant color — She’s Gotta Have It also broke new ground with Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), the young, Black, unapologetically polyamorous artist whom the film’s forthright exploration of sexuality and feminism is centered on. Lee has since expressed regret about one scene in the film — an ill-judged moment that unavoidably dilutes some of its brilliance — but this aside, She’s Gotta Have It stands overall as a radical, exuberant, and impressively assertive lightning bolt of an entry into the medium that Lee changed forever.

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Actor: Bill Lee, Cheryl Burr, Eric Payne, Erik Dellums, Ernest R. Dickerson, Fab 5 Freddy, John Canada Terrell, Joie Lee, Monty Ross, Raye Dowell, Reginald Hudlin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Spike Lee, Tiziano Cortini, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Tracy Camilla Johns

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R

Legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne returns with this enigmatic stage show, and with Spike Lee in tow, the film reaches for the heights of the iconic concert doc Stop Making Sense. For those unfamiliar, Stop Making Sense directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the Talking Heads’ invigorating live show in their early eighties prime, and is often considered one of the best concert films of all time.

Now nearly forty years later Byrne attempts a resurrection of that spirit or a form of it given his former bandmates notably absent from the project. His propellant energy is on full display as he goes through the ‘Heads catalog with a backing band that dances in intricately choreographed sequences around him. Most notable, however, is the sparseness of the stage production which brings to mind a dirge-like atmosphere. Byrne’s righteous thrashings against Reagan’s America carry renewed weight in the despondency of the Trump-era. So despite his attempts at optimism, aching futility runs through the heart of the show; most pointed when Byrne sings the famous lines from in Once In A Lifetime: “Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten Iii, David Byrne, Jacqueline Acevedo, Mauro Refosco, Tendayi Kuumba

Director: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical film is a loving and nostalgic ode to the Brooklyn of his childhood. It also happens to be his sweetest work and while overshadowed by the explosive Do The Right Thing, remains an easy contender for one of his very best. The world of Crooklyn is told through the eyes of Troy, a young girl growing up with her four brothers, and her mother and father in a cramped brownstone. 

Lee’s Brooklyn is a colorful delight set aloft by a swooning soul soundtrack. His ability to capture the vibrant magical tones and textures of the city feels as complete as ever, and marvelous performances from Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo as Troy’s parents help create a touching and all-encompassing experience. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alfre Woodard, Arthur French, Bokeem Woodbine, Carlton Williams, Carmen Tillery, Christopher Knowings, Christopher Wynkoop, Dan Grimaldi, Danielle K. Thomas, David Patrick Kelly, Delroy Lindo, Emelise Aleandri, Frances Foster, Gary Perez, Harvey Williams, Hector M. Ricci Jr., Isaiah Washington, Ivelka Reyes, Joie Lee, José Zúñiga, Keith Johnson, Kewanna Bonaparte, Manny Perez, Maurie A. Chandler, Michele Shay, Mildred Clinton, Norman Matlock, Omar Scroggins, Patriece Nelson, Peewee Love, Raymond Reliford, Rene Ojeda, Richard Whiten, RuPaul, Sharif Rashed, Spike Lee, Taneal Royal, Tiasha Reyes, Tracy Vilar, Tse-Mach Washington, Ulysses Terrero, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Zelda Harris

Director: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s adaptation of Richard Price’s novel might appear lesser next to his best work, but it still a gorgeous showcase for all of his talents as a director. Its case is further bolstered by a stacked cast including Delroy Lindo, Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Pfifer, Isaiah Washington, and John Turturro. 

Clockers is set in the world of small-time drug-dealers during the crack epidemic, and much like The Wire (which Price would go on to write for) applies a multifaceted lens to the material. Lee’s uncompromising and emphatic direction lends a gorgeous gravity to the taut drama while top-notch performances fuel the emotional furnace at its core.

 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Anthony Nocerino, Arthur J. Nascarella, Bray Poor, Brendan Kelly, Brian Konowal, Carlo Vogel, Christopher Wynkoop, David Batiste, Delroy Lindo, Elvis Nolasco, Frances Foster, Fredro Starr, Ginny Yang, Graham Brown, Hal Sherman, Harry Lennix, Harvey Keitel, Harvey Williams, Hassan Johnson, Isaiah Washington, J. C. MacKenzie, James Saxenmeyer, Jeff Ward, John Fletcher, John Turturro, Jordan Brown, Keith David, Ken Garito, L.B. Williams, Lawrence B. Adisa, Leonard L. Thomas, Lisa Arrindell, Lord Kayson, Marc Webster, Maurice Sneed, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Badalucco, Michael Cullen, Michael Imperioli, Michael McGruther, Mike Starr, Norman Matlock, Orran Farmer, Patrick Ferraro, Paul Calderon, Paul DuBois, Paul Schulze, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Richard Ziman, Rick Aiello, Ron Brice, Scot Anthony Robinson, Shawn McLean, Skipp Sudduth, Spike Lee, Steve White, Sticky Fingaz, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Tim Kelleher

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R