Spike Lee’s new movie, Red Hook Summer, today. Incidentally, it’s his 21st theatrical film and one that returns him to low-budget film-making, a hallmark of his early career. New York Magazine’s Vulture ranked all 22 Spike Lee films and we agree with the list for the most part, though we think School Daze should have ranked higher. Here are the top 5:
5. Inside Man (2006): Turns out, Lee can make a perfectly straightforward, compelling thriller. Taking a page from old New York masters like Sidney Lumet, Lee sets his bank heist flick smack dab in the middle of his New York and then gets out of the way and lets his actors take over. It still has its Spike Lee moments — there’s a scene involving a kid and his video game that feels like an op-ed Lee would write for the Times — but this was Lee showing that, yeah, Hollywood, he could play ball and direct a cracker-jack entertainment as well as anybody, if not better, thank you very much.
4. When the Levees Broke (2006): Of all the news stories and human interest tales to come out of the tragedy of Katrina, only Lee’s four-hour HBO documentary comes the closest to capturing all the details, from the large and frivolous (Kanye West explaining his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment) to the small and horrifying. Lee has always been an underrated empathist, and his gentle (yet appropriately outraged) tone allows his subjects to tell their stories themselves, in their own words, in more devastating ways than one could imagine.
3. 25th Hour (2002): It was, in fact, happenstance that Lee happened to be just about ready to start filming of David Benioff’s novel right after 9/11, but no filmmaker could have done better at capturing the sense of loss and weary finality that this wounded city continued to feel for years afterward. The story of a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton, never better) coming to terms with his life right before heading off for a seven-year prison sentence is spiritual and philosophical in a way Lee has rarely allowed his films to be; it’s elegiac and sad and yet strong in way that make this Lee’s perfect New York film. And that closing scene is a knockout.
2. Malcolm X (1992): Spike Lee has had several ambitious dream projects — biographies of Jackie Robinson and James Brown, his cut-at-the-last-minuteL.A. Riots film — but the one that came to fruition, the one made at the height of his powers, was Malcolm X, a grand epic done Spike Lee style. Over its three-and-a-half-hour running time, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character, and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, it also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining, full of some of Lee’s most masterful set pieces, particularly the breathtaking scene of Malcolm leading his followers to a frightening and exhilarating march on a hospital. Spike Lee would never have a project with this budget and this scope again. Malcolm X is a vivid example of why that’s such a damned shame.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989): In his diary on Christmas morning 1987, Spike Lee jotted down his ideas for his next movie: “I want the film to take place over the course of one day, the hottest day of the year, in Brooklyn, New York … The film has to look hot, too. The audience should feel like it’s suffocating, likeIn the Heat of the Night.” Beyond its other notable achievements, Do the Right Thing is a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy at a time of escalating racial tension in the city. But the film’s precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would have meant nothing without Lee’s wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria. More than twenty years later, it’s obvious that Lee’s Mookie doesn’t do the right thing at the end of the film — but it’s not as if any of the other characters (or us in the audience) know what that would be, either.
Here’s the trailer for Red Hook Summer: