Sometimes you just need to swim in the work of a single creator for a spell. Especially when it brings the heat, social commentary, and modern day prophecy. No one better at that than the versatile, heavy-handed master himself, Spike Lee. So this month, to honor the theme of celebrating our cinematic favorites, I can’t think of a better or more timely pursuit than venturing back into the unsettling, poetic waters of Mr. Lee.
Each month, I pick a short-list of under-the-radar titles waiting to be unearthed from the algorithms of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and the like. Because movie nights are important and life’s too short to watch the wrong stuff. And after you’ve caught Spike’s latest installment, Da 5 Bloods, courtesy of Netflix, you’ll want to know where to stop next.
Here are a few uniquely Spike titles that will upgrade your “To-Watch” list this June.
To call this one niche may be an understatement, but it’s got too much style, too much passion to be ignored. Why? Because that’s what Spike Lee does. A unique brand of guerilla, urban creativity bursts from the screen to deliver societal, racial commentary. Chi-Raq is a daring re-imagining of the Ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, by Aristophones but you know … with Samuel L. Jackson serving as the Greek Chorus.
Transcending conventional criticism or comment, this one simply cannot be defined by normal narrative standards. Truth be told, Spike Lee lives to unsettle but in grand, vibrant fashion. Chi-Raq is lyrically stunning and visually striking in a vacuum. Wrap it all up in the tour de force performance from Teyonah Parris, and you have a 21st Century retelling of the age old cautionary tale. Gang violence, race, and sexual desire are in the crosshairs as the passionate women of Chicago take back control in hopes of quelling senseless violence once and for all. If nothing else it’s basically an all-star squad of talent from Wesley Snipes to Angela Bassett to Jennifer Hudson to Dave Chappelle. Ultimately, when it’s Spike Lee doing the preaching, you’ll always get more than you bargained for – and that’s a good thing.
FOR FANS OF: Dear White People; Passover; Poetic Justice
Do The Right Thing (1989)
The seminal title from Mr. Lee’s arsenal. Do The Right Thing, amongst its notes of greek-tragedy and urban allegory, is one of the most important films rooted in the late 20th Century. For all of the polarizing commentary surrounding the time of its release and the sheer volume of commentary and pure characterization it carries, this landmark film just might be perfect.
In the thick of a familiar Brooklyn neighborhood during the hottest day of the summer, we follow Mookie through the most tumultuous and tragic day of his life. Tempers boil as bigotry, racism, and territorial onus come to a head between the Black locals calling that storied neighborhood home and Sal, the not-quite-so-loveable Italian owner of the corner pizza joint. From police violence to white privilege to saluting heritage to struggling to make ends meet to whacky (yet authentic) characters to music to murder to riots to pizza to Air Jordans to imperfect relationships to complicated understandings to uncomfortable conversations to fatherhood – it’s all there. Do The Right Thing touches a bevy of triggering topics and manages to do so with unflinching truth yet relatable empathy. A case study in capturing place, unlocking that “lived-in” quality of community channeled through expertly built tension. The heat, the language, the music, the atmosphere, it speaks to an uncanny understanding of how to bring a unique kind of everyday experience to life. What should’ve been Spike’s Best Director and Best Picture Oscars got snubbed out to the likes of Driving Miss Daisy which, in and of itself, proves the point of the picture all together. Needless to say, this one is as messy in subject as it is beautiful in craft.
As an homage to a particular time, place, and people Do The Right Thing is supposed to unsettle. It’s supposed to leave you hanging with the uncomfortably unanswerable questions. But one thing can’t be missed, as Dr. King said, “rioting is the language of the unheard”. Mr. Lee’s magnum opus here is a testament to that vital truth. Because when it all comes to a head, you can’t help but feel like Mookie’s decision to toss the trash can through the glass wasn’t just the right decision … it was the inevitable one.
PLATFORM: Prime (to rent)
FOR FANS OF: Boyz n the Hood; Friday; Straight Outta Compton
Malcolm X (1992)
One random school night back in 2002, I unknowingly fell into this edgy, immersive film. I stayed up way into the late-night/early morning hours watching the whole three hour and twenty-two minute behemoth on the old school Starz channel. As a young teenager, the concept of a movie with a message was still relatively new to me. But this visceral master display from Spike and Denzel grabbed hold and wouldn’t let me go. Things were different after that. For the first time, I began to understand the power of film and the stories they wield; the artistry behind capturing angles, color, and production design; blown away by a single performance that defined an era as much as it emulated the real-life titan himself. Malcolm X introduced me to the work of Mr. Lee but, more importantly, unveiled the concept of my white privilege and charged me to see things differently; to ask uncomfortable questions.
Therein lies the testament to Spike’s artistry. There’s never a single moment of doubt what he wants you to grapple with. He’s never been accused of subtlety. But he understands his chosen vehicle of filmmaking to a higher degree than most of his counterparts. He has a message to share, a history and heritage to represent, a movement to place in the spotlight, and a level of cinematic mastery that makes the experience as entertaining as it is socially imperative. His unyielding exploration of the mythic civil rights icon, Malcolm X, is a rare sort of achievement that lives in the plane above the genre of which it boasts. Malcolm X isn’t just a biopic – it’s an experience … and one that no doubt changes you. It’s still beyond me how Denzel didn’t run away with the Oscar that year, or how the film itself didn’t clean-up in the nominations department. Grand in scale, nuanced in humanization, and unapologetic in nature; the herculean title is certainly worthy of its name and a nearly unmatched triumph in important, modern filmmaking.
If nothing else, the Sam Cooke segment just before Malcolm’s assassination – complete with the iconic dolley shot – is about as breathtaking a sequence as you’re bound to find. And, quite possibly, the best use of a song in film I’ve encountered. It somehow both breaks your heart and inspires at the same time. Fractured prophecy colliding with progressive hope. The single greatest performance of Mr. Washington’s storied career flourishing under the helm of a true master’s touch. Malcolm X is one for the ages.
FOR FANS OF: He Got Game; The Hurricane; Selma
Pass Over (2018)
Imagine Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as an urban commentary on systemic racism. That’s where we find the inspiration for Antoinette Nwamdu’s play, Pass Over.
Two Black friends, Moses and Kitch, fantasize about leaving the dangers of dark city life and finally making it to the promised land … wherever that may be. Spending their days beneath a lone street lamp on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and 64th Street, each day re-lives itself as they share sharp banter, bold declarations of one day leaving, finding food, and much, much more. Akin to Beckett’s counterparts, Vladimir and Estragon, M & K both embody the inherent Black heritage of which they derive while leaning into the absurdism the narrative conjures. Along the way they grapple with an over-eager-to-please white plantation owner, a white, fiercely zealous cop, and constantly ducking for cover at the sound of distant gunfire.
Spike Lee, the maestro behind the project, captures a different world through his camera. The play produced at Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the focal point. Lee both directs the live theatre piece and the subsequent recording of the performance. We step into this modern day absurdist theatrical realm as the tale of two earnest but wandering Black men both ignites laughter and guttural devastation. A niche project bound to feel too “out there” for some but still speaking to the universality of racial tension and proud American identity.
Jon Michael Hill as Moses presents one of the most intense, wildly evocative yet deeply emotional performances you are bound to see from the Spike Lee canon. A passionate persona, Hill’s Moses celebrates archetype as it challenges us to see everything with new eyes. His counterpart, Julian Parker, brings Kitch to life in a manner that feels domineering but fragile. He yearns to be brother to Moses in every sense of the term but clearly carries more sensitivity than he dares admit. The play intertwines their energies, overlaying dialogue, and swelling observations to a symphonic degree; lyrical yet cutting all the way through to the shocking conclusion. A 21st Century tragic-comedy if there ever was one. Through all the crises of identity and circumstance sets, at the center of it all, the ultimate question: What does it mean to be an idealistic Black man in America in the face of systemic injustice?
This one is unlike anything you’ve seen from Mr. Lee, but it certainly is as profound and timely as anything he’s conducted.
FOR FANS OF: Chi-Raq; Dope; Juice
Overstuffed queue? Don’t stress. Jump into one of these can’t miss Spike Lee titles to upgrade your movie night and social education. Or, catch one of his others on your favorite platform:
- NETFLIX: Get On the Bus; Inside Man; School Daze; She’s Gotta Have It (film + show); Rodney King
- HULU: 4 Little Girls; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus; A Huey P. Newton Story; The Original Kings of Comedy
- PRIME: Red Hook Summer
What’s the best Spike flick you’ve caught on a streaming platform recently? Share in the comments and help me expand the list!