Spike Lee Looks Back On The 19 Movies That Have Defined His Career
The iconic director runs through his 30-year film career with BuzzFeed News, from his first feature film She's Gotta Have It to his latest, Chi-Raq.
On Nov. 14, director Spike Lee stood in front of Hollywood’s mostly white elite at the Governors Awards, where he was given an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In his navy blue velvet Nehru jacket and matching pants, and his signature newsboy cap, worn backward, the hold-no-punches director used the opportunity to tell the audience: “Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I don’t see no black folks [other than] the brother man security guard who checks my name off the list as I go into the studio.”
Lee, 58, has been trying to be the change he wants to see in world over the course of his three decades as a filmmaker, and his latest, Chi-Raq, the title of which was emblazoned on his hat that night, is no different.
Two days after the award ceremony, Lee, wearing that same black hat, settled on a couch inside a swanky Beverly Hills hotel suite, as he pushed his iconic black horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose. He laughed as the red, black, and green beads of his necklace — the colors of the Pan-African flag — knocked against one another, creating a faint rhythm to the famous — and infamous, if we’re being honest here — filmmaker’s joy.
It’s odd to hear Lee laugh. It feels uncharacteristic for the take-no-shit creator of some of the most critically acclaimed — and yes, contentious — films of the last 30 years. And that’s what Lee is best known for: creating conversation.
Over the years, Lee’s challenged viewers to think about colorism, interracial relationships, gentrification, and the devastation of drugs on the black community. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s going to get you to feel something.
Basically, Spike Lee ain’t playing with y’all.
And his reputation is well-earned. To call Lee guarded doesn’t quite paint a full picture of how he carries himself. He chooses what he says very carefully — which is interesting to hear, considering he’s a well-known wordsmith who has been bringing black stories to life in untested ways since the star of his career in the ‘80s.
In looking back on his three decades as a filmmaker with BuzzFeed News, Lee, at times, opened up more than usual, and appropriately joked about how often his films have been labeled “controversial.”
“What film of mine never got pushback?!” he cracked.
Other times, he was more reserved; the seasoned director tends to be cautious.
Lee went through some of his work from his first feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to his latest, Chi-Raq (2015), revealing his one regret, his greatest discoveries, and why he — the world’s most famous black filmmaker — still has to fight twice as hard.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Lee’s first feature film follows Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) is a sexually free Brooklyn woman who is juggling three lovers. They all want her to settle down and be in a monogamous relationship, but she refuses to pick one.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Lee said. “I didn’t really feel I was in command of filmmaking, of telling the story until Do the Right Thing, the third film. She's Gotta Have It and School Daze was winging it, because I just didn't have the experience.”
But he does have one regret: “All the films I have done, the only thing that I would ever take back was the rape scene in She’s Gotta Have It. That was not necessary,” Lee said of the scene in which Nola begs one of her suitors, Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), to stop.
School Daze (1988)
Lee’s second feature film was an homage to his time at Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta. The film tackled many heated subjects, including colorism (the wannabes vs. the jigaboos) and the anti-Apartheid movement. Lee shot the film on the campuses of Morehouse, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morris Brown College, and it was filled with impressive performances from Tisha Campbell-Martin, Giancarlo Esposito, and Laurence Fishburne. School Daze also introduced the world to Samuel L. Jackson, who had one standout scene as a city local fed up with pompous college boys.
“I love Sam, my Morehouse brother! When I was at Morehouse, he had graduated already,” Lee said of Jackson. “Sam was already doing his thing before me. He was doing theater in Atlanta, [and] that’s where I met Sam and his wife LaTanya Richardson.”
Luckily, Jackson was working in the area locally, so Lee was able to hire him for the film, which was basically Lee’s four years at the college compacted into one homecoming weekend. “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” the filmmaker said.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
It’s the hottest day of the year and racial tensions are just about to boil over in this Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, neighborhood. Lee wrote the movie in two weeks, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The story is partly inspired by the death of Michael Griffith, a black man who was attacked by white youth in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. Griffith was killed by a passing car as he tried to escape the beatdown. Lee dedicated the film to Griffith’s family and to five other black New Yorkers who died around that time.
“March 1 to March 14, 1988!” Lee chirped about the time it took him to write Do the Right Thing.
Unfortunately, there were so many racially charged infractions in New York at the time that finding a story to tell was easy. “We had a lot of things going around and happening in New York City at the time, and it all came together,” Lee said.
Mo Better Blues (1990)
This drama brought both Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes together, marking the first time Lee worked with the two emerging box office stars. Washington played the fictional jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, who made bad decisions in both his love life and his career, while Snipes played Shadow Henderson, Bleek’s grandstanding saxophonist.
“There was a lot of testosterone on that set. I mean, they were going toe-to-toe,” Lee said of Washington and Snipes before breaking into another uncharacteristic fit of laughter. “I remember this story that the whole band — you know, Denzel, Wesley, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Jeff Watts — they went to a club and then they got on stage to play and they were horrible! It was a jazz club! C’mon!”
Jungle Fever (1991)
This film dealt with the fallout from an affair between a married black architect (Snipes) and his Italian-American secretary (Annabella Sciorra). The film was partly inspired by 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, who was killed in 1989 while hanging out in Bensonhurst, New York, a largely Italian-American neighborhood at the time. It was believed that he was romantically involved with a white girl who lived in the area. Hawkins was attacked and shot twice.
Jungle Fever also introduced the world to two major talents, both of whom have been nominated for Academy Awards (including one historic win).
“Halle Berry’s first film! Also, Queen Latifah’s first film!” Lee said brightly.
But the bigger takeaway the filmmaker said he wishes people had was on a subject not often talked about critically with regard to Jungle Fever.
“A lot of people focus on the interracial theme, but the main story, for me, as the author of Jungle Fever, was the devastation of crack on our community,” Lee said. “I feel that’s the greatest performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Gator. He was amazing. And then to bring Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis back? Man! I worked with them on Do the Right Thing, and it was such a great experience.”
Malcolm X (1992)
The biographical drama about the eponymous activist touched on all aspects of the leader’s life: his upbringing, his criminal record, his time as an activist in the Nation of Islam, and his fallout from the group. Washington starred and earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
“Denzel Washington!” Lee said of the one thing he got right with this standard-setting biopic.
He added that it wasn’t his own detailed research that helped Washington nail the civil rights icon. “Denzel did the work himself. Denzel Washington knows what he needs to do.”
Lee returned to Bed-Stuy for this coming-of-age film set in the early 1970s. And the semi-autobiographical movie was also a family affair: Lee collaborated with his siblings to create it.
“It's told through the eyes of my sister, Joie Lee, who’s one of the co-writers. I remember when she and my brother Cinqué told me they wrote [it], I didn't even know they were writing a script! They just handed it to me,” Lee said, shaking his head at the memory.
When asked if he was as hard on them as he is on everyone else, Lee said, “I have been — not like it used to be, though. I was grateful they wrote that script … [and] that we made it into a film.”
Get on the Bus (1996)
Time wasn’t on Lee’s side for this feature film version of the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. The movie focused on a busload of Los Angeles men traveling to the nation’s capital to be a part of the historic event, and it premiered exactly one year to the day of the actual march — where African-American men gathered on the National Mall to unite. It was the first of Lee’s films that he didn’t act in.
“We shot it in 18 days,” Lee said. “It wasn’t my idea. … Reggie Rock Bythewood … he wrote the script and that's how it happened. That was part of it when it was presented to me, that there was a deadline here.”
He laughed when asked about the critical response to the film, specifically Roger Ebert’s perfect four-star rating. “That was not really the consensus, let the truth be told!” Lee said. “Thank you, Roger Ebert, though. The late, great, Roger Ebert! But that was not the consensus.”
He Got Game (1998)
For his first sports film, Lee hired NBA star Ray Allen to portray Jesus Shuttlesworth, a top-ranked high school prospect who just about every college wants on their team. His father Jake (Washington) is a convicted killer who is released temporarily because the state’s governor wants Jesus to attend his alma mater.
Allen, who had never acted before, held his own against Washington. There was never a thought to hire a trained actor to play Jesus, Lee said of the role that almost went to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. (Bryant passed on the part because he didn’t fair as well as he’d hoped in the 1997 finals, so he opted to spend the summer to prepare for the next season.)
“No actor, in my opinion, can portray the best high school player in the nation. Nobody. An actor can't do that,” Lee insisted.
But the filmmaker thought he could transform an athlete into an actor. “We had a wonderful coach, Susan Batson. And then we just worked with Ray,” Lee said of Allen’s acting coach, who worked with him for eight weeks before filming on He Got Game began. “Ray worked his ass off in that.”
Lee turned up the controversy for this film about a fed up black TV executive (Damon Wayans) who created a black minstrel show where black actors wear blackface. The movie directly took aim at the lack of positive programming about black people on TV.
“The film was made in 2000, which really coincided with the 100th anniversary of film and TV. So I wanted to look at … the misrepresentation of black people in TV and film,” Lee said of his inspiration for the satire.
“That opening scene in Bamboozled, Damon Wayans’ character gives a Webster’s Dictionary definition of satire,” he added, shaking his head as he thought about the reaction to the first trailer for Chi-Raq, which prompted Lee to release a video to explain that the new film is also satirical. “And that was 15 years ago!”
The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)
After Bamboozled, Lee was happy to take a break from such serious subject matters and have a little fun. He was contacted by the producer of the Original Kings of Comedy tour, a highly successful stand-up tour featuring four preeminent black comics — Steve Harvey, D.L Hughley, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer — to create a documentary about the tour. It was shot over the course of two nights in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“All those guys are funny,” Lee remembered with a smile. He shrugged off any creative tweaks he might have made as director, adding, “It already was huge before we even filmed it.”
And it gave Lee another chance to work with Mac (who also was in Get on the Bus), who suffered from sarcoidosis and died in 2008 from complications of pneumonia.
25th Hour (2002)
The drama — which starred Edward Norton (whom Lee had been looking to work with for a while), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Barry Pepper — was one of Lee’s best reviewed films ever. He smiled when he was reminded of the feedback he received from the film that was a love letter to his beloved city.
“New York City is definitely a character in that — a wounded New York City. Proud, bowed, wounded, but it's still wounded,” Lee said thoughtfully. “The novel [that the film was adapted from] was written by David Benioff of Game of Thrones fame — [it was] brilliant.”
She Hate Me (2004)
This was another Lee-directed film that sparked some controversy. It revolved around Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), an executive who is wrongly accused of securities fraud and finds himself cash-strapped. At the insistence of his gay ex-fiancé Fatima Goodrich (Kerry Washington), Jack decides to charge lesbians $10,000 a pop to have sex with him in order to become pregnant. But Lee stands by the film, which he also co-wrote with Michael Genet.
“This was really the story I wanted to tell and it was a fun film,” Lee said with a shrug, not all that concerned of the criticism the storyline earned him. “It was great working with Mackie and Kerry Washington.”
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Unlike what he did with Get on the Bus — a feature film about a major contemporary news story — Lee decided to go straight in his exploration of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a documentary. It ultimately aired on HBO, and went on to win three Emmys and a Peabody.
“I wanted the people to tell the story, not actors. This was something where the people themselves needed [a] voice,” Lee said.
In terms of his filmmaking process, however, Lee didn’t change much. “I don't have a different approach between documentaries and feature films, because my approach is just to tell a story,” he said.
Inside Man (2006)
This American crime thriller focused on an elaborate bank heist over the course of 24 hours and featured a star-studded cast: Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer. Critics loved it, and Lee said he knows exactly why.
“It was a genre film! The heist genre, which is very, very, very popular. And the way we did it, where we put some twists and turns in … we did stuff that people might not have expected,” he said.
Plus, Inside Man featured Lee’s frequent collaborator, Washington. “It was always great with Denzel. We just did our thing.”
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Lee adapted this film from a James McBride novel set during World War II. It follows four Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division, and tells their stories via flashbacks.
“We wanted to explore the African-American contribution to World War II that often gets overlooked in film,” Lee said. “We fought for this country from way back. The first American that died in the American Revolutionary War was a black person named Crispus Attucks!”
The film starred Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller, and was the first big budget picture since 1989’s Glory that focused on African-American soldiers.
Red Hook Summer (2012)
Lee again turned to news headlines to find inspiration for this film, which was based on Atlanta clergyman Eddie Long who was sued by three young men, claiming he used his influence to engage them in sexual relationships. (He ultimately settled with his accusers.)
“We wanted to look at how [Long] devastated people’s lives,” Lee said of the self-financed film that centered on a young protagonist (Jules Brown) spending time with his minister grandfather (Clarke Peters) in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
When asked if it sparked the kind of conversation the director hoped for, Lee said, “Not enough.”
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
When no studio would fund Lee’s film about a wealthy anthropologist who gets stabbed by an ancient African dagger and transforms into a vampire, he headed to Kickstarter “to get the money to make the motherfucking movie!”
The film was important to Lee, who called it a new kind of love story. He was thrilled that his fans and Hollywood colleagues helped him raise $1.4 million to make it (including a $10,000 donation from director Steven Soderbergh).
“That film is very special,” Lee said matter-of-factly. “Shot it on Martha’s Vineyard, it was a reinterpretation of the classic film Ganja & Hess, written and directed by Bill Gunn.”
For his latest film, Lee wanted to use satire to tell the story of the violence happening on Chicago’s South Side. And unfortunately, he noted, it’s timely, considering that on the first day of shooting, he had to attend the funeral of the brother of one of the people working on the film.
“One of the young gentlemen — he was a former gang banger, living that life, but now works [with] the church. And his brother got murdered,” Lee said. “I don’t want to sound cold or heartless, but I knew what we were dealing with when I wrote the script. There was a reason why I was making this film: People are being killed.”
One of Chi-Raq’s stars, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, had to deal with the tragedy of her mother, brother, and nephew being murdered in her mother’s South Side Chicago home in 2008.
“I knew I wanted to cast Jennifer, and I had her number. But it took me a couple days to get enough courage to ask her,” Lee said of Hudson, who plays a grieving mother who loses her daughter to gun violence. “My concern is that by her doing this role, it would open up wounds. But she said, ‘Spike, come on now. I live with this every day. Let’s make this film.’”