Spike Lee: Ranking his films to date

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There are few filmmakers out there with more of a personal touch than Spike Lee. The director is never more interesting than when a social issue has gotten his ire, with the recently released Chi-Raq being no exception. Lee can be a hit or miss artist, but he’s rarely boring, that’s for sure. With a career now featuring 25 theatrical titles (not to mention his work on television), he’s also far more prolific than folks seem to realize. As such (along with his impending honorary Oscar from the Academy), I wanted to spend a quick moment talking about him, especially since the precursor season prevented me from discussing Chi-Raq before it opened in limited release over the weekend…

Chi-Raq is basically a modern day adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata. Here, instead of Greece, it’s Chicago, with gang/gun violence being what inspires the women of Chicago (or, as it’s called, Chi-Raq) to rise up and withhold sex from their men until the fighting stops. Yes, Lee is using some absurdity to point out the absurd nature of what’s going on in our country. The ensemble cast of this dramedy (it’s also got a musical tinge to it) includes Angela Bassett, Nick Cannon, Dave Chappelle, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, David Patrick Kelly, Harry Lennix, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, D.B. Sweeney, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and more. Lee co-writes with Kevin Willmott and directs, with Matthew Libatique handling the cinematography and Lee’s longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard doing the score.

Though hardly his best work to date, Chi-Raq has more in common with Lee’s upper echelon like 25th Hour and Do the Right Thing than with his bottom of the barrel efforts. It really comes down to his investment. Lee’s remake of Oldboy failed for a number of reasons, but one such reason was his lack of personal stake. He’s obviously a talented studio director, as evidenced by Inside Man, among other things, but Lee is at his best when he’s angry, simply put. He’s never been angrier than in Do the Right Thing, but Chi-Raq is in that neighborhood. It’s a mixed bag of a movie, but the ingredients of vintage Lee are definitely on display. Honestly, the rush to have it out in time for awards season (along with a debut on Amazon as part of their launch to be considered up their with Netflix as a crossover service) is part of why this isn’t the success it could have been. With more time to edit, this could have been special.

Lee is of course going to be receiving an honorary Academy Award this year, and while it’s definitely a deserved prize, you do kind of wish that Oscar voters had recognized him previously for one of his movies. Do the Right Thing and his documentary 4 Little Girls (give or take Malcolm X as well) have been his closest brushes with the Academy previously, but things like 25th Hour especially are outings that voters missed the boat on. They’re righting a wrong, to be sure, but you do hope that Lee can win a competitive one at some point. Time will tell, I suppose…

Here now is how I would rank the films of Lee’s career so far:

1. 25th Hour
2. Do the Right Thing
3. 4 Little Girls
4. Malcolm X
5. Inside Man
6. Clockers
7. He Got Game
8. Summer of Sam
9. She’s Gotta Have It
10. School Daze
11. Get on the Bus
12. Crooklyn
13. Jungle Fever
14. Chi-Raq
15. Mo Better Blues
16. Bad 25
17. Miracle at St. Anna
18. Girl 6
19. Passing Strange
20. She Hate Me
21. Red Hook Summer
22. The Original Kings of Comedy
23. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
24. Bamboozled
25. Oldboy

Chi-Raq is in theaters now and will be available on Amazon as well!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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