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Ranked: Spike Lee Films from Worst to Best
In honor of Red Hook Summer, we're taking a look back at a filmography of right things, wrong things, and "meh" things.
by Phillip Dyess-Nugent
Like Billy Zane’s character in Titanic, Spike Lee believes in making his own luck. In 1983, his hour-long student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads was showcased as part of New York’s New Directors/New Films series, the kind of break that would have inspired many an ambitious twenty-six-year-old director to get an agent and wait for the offers to start pouring in. Instead, Lee set up his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, and got to work. The rest, as they say, is history. Lee's new joint (we're contractually obligated to call them that), Red Hook Summer, is his twentieth feature film. To honor that, we're taking a look at his filmography to see how it stacks up. (We've omitted the documentaries and feature films that were strictly performance-based, like Passing Strange.)
17. She Hate Me (2004)
A sperm-donor comedy whose title manages to simultaneously refer to, A) a forgotten publicity stunt by a forgotten player in the forgotten XFL, and B) the climactic scene from The Bride of Frankenstein. There ends the complete list of things that are sort of interesting about this movie, aside from the fact that Lee thought there would be people who wanted to watch over two hours of it. When a director can get a film like this all the way from the planning stages to the editing room without anyone saying to him, “But boss, people will say you’ve gone nuts,” it’s time for a reality check.
16. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Eager to burn up the industry cred he’d accumulated with Inside Man, and show Clint Eastwood (whose World War II movie Flags of Our Fathers Lee attacked over its lack of black soldiers) how it’s done, Lee summoned up all his ambition, a $45 million budget, and a ticket to Italy, and managed to slop together the most overblown, unfocused, simplistic wartime epic of the post-Saving Private Ryan era. At nearly three hours, it's challenging to sit through, and its ambitions, while noble, are largely outweighed by the broadly-drawn characters and middling nature of its combat scenes.
15. Bamboozled (2000)
Shortly after releasing The Kings of Comedy, Lee rushed the release of this “satire” to make sure that nobody would get the wrong idea and think he still had a sense of humor. Trying to get himself fired, a black TV executive (Damon Wayans) pitches a minstrel show (performed by black entertainers in blackface) as a series. It makes it onto the air and becomes a sensation, which proves either that America is exactly as racist as it was 150 years ago, or that the critics who complained that Lee was cashing in on a demeaning stereotype when he used his Mars Blackmon character in sneaker commercials hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.
14. Jungle Fever (1991)
When Lee is feeling especially ambitious he can get so busy pounding on all the hot-button issues that can be connected to a subject that he forgets to include a story or any real characters to go with them. Jungle Fever, which is ostensibly about an interracial love affair (between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra) is an especially ripe example of this tendency. Snipes, who Lee propelled toward stardom a year earlier in Mo’ Better Blues, looks as if he’s just trying to figure out why he agreed to play a character named “Flipper Purify.” The star-of-tomorrow moment goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whose scenes (as a doomed crackhead named Gator) seem to be intermission breaks from a different film.
13. School Daze (1988)
Presumably this full-color production (complete with musical numbers!) at least suggests the debut Lee had wanted to make instead of She’s Gotta Have It, and he should begin every day for the rest of his life getting down on his knees and thanking God that he didn’t get to make it. It deserves credit for broaching the subject of racism among African-Americans, but as filmmaking, much of it is just embarrassing, from the title to the naked sincerity of the “Everybody wake up!” ending. On the plus side, it helped make a hit of E.U.’s “Da Butt” and create a too-brief vogue for the D.C.-based go-go scene it had come out of.
12. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
A sprawling, unfocused, cliché-ridden tribute to jazz, with original music by Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and Denzel as a sexy-stud trumpeter. Maybe because it’s not clear who or what Washington is meant to be besides a Movie Star in a Movie Star Part, but a pre-stardom Wesley Snipes walks off with the picture, as a musician with the hard-to-resist name of Shadow Henderson. Not especially successful in the wake of Do the Right Thing, it still managed to create a minor controversy over the anti-Semitic caricatures of two money-grubbing nightclub owners, played by John and Nicholas Turturro. Always his own worst enemy in such matters, Lee helpfully explained that the characters weren’t anti-Semitic at all, then added that even if they were, nobody had a right to complain until black filmmakers had created enough anti-Semitic images in movies to catch up with all the racist images included in films by white directors.
11. Girl 6 (1996)
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrote this character study of a young actress (Theresa Randle) who takes a job as a phone sex operator. This was apparently Lee’s answer to those who criticized the depiction of (or seeming lack of interest in) women in many of his previous movies, but it’s neither especially sexy (except for when some random image happens to sync nicely with the Prince songs on the soundtrack) and nor all that invested in the central character. It’s worth at least considering the possibility that he made it just for the sake of having his new rival for the face of American indie movies, Quentin Tarantino, play himself as a raving ass. Also, one of the few times in his career when Lee didn’t seem to be even trying to break the two-hour running time mark.
10. Summer of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam is set in the Bronx, and features confused, hate-filled Italian-Americans freaking out in the extreme heat during a summer dominated by a city-wide blackout and the Son of Sam murders. Unfortunately, this shrill, hysterical movie belongs to a genre that only a brazen New York chauvinist of a moviemaker would want to dominate: a nostalgic recreation of what, for most people, would count as the worst couple of months of their lives. Notable for the sight of Adrian Brody in period-accurate punk plumage and what is reportedly an official record for use of the F-word and its derivatives in a non-documentary movie.
9. Get on the Bus (1996)
Naturally, someone as obsessed with outrage and spectacle as Lee thought the Million Man March — a 1995 gathering of black men at the National Mall — was a crowning historical event. His contribution to the one-year anniversary of the March was this film, in which an impressive group of actors (including Andre Braugher, Harry J. Lennix, Charles S. Dutton, Isaiah Washington, Ossie Davis, Bernie Mac, Albert Hall, Wendell Pierce, and Roger Guenveur Smith) board a bus and set out for the March, forming a microcosm of contemporary African-American manhood. Watchable, and certainly well-acted, but it’s like a footnote to an entry that got dropped from the encyclopedia — for all the historically-significant moments Lee's either chronicled or created, the March isn't one of them.