WAKE UP!!! A Curated Journey Through 5 Spike Lee Joints

From Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing
Written by Josh Kadish

Disclaimer: I am an alumnus of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, with a background in cinema & media studies. I am also white. In no way, shape or form is this article meant to be the first or last word on the work of any Black artist, especially Spike Lee. It is simply a reflection of my love for Lee’s work and a platform on which to present his filmography through the lens of criticism from the Black community. I strongly encourage everyone to read the articles referenced in this piece - they approach each of Spike’s films with the same depth and level of critique that has always been present in this auteur’s work.

There is a feeling in the air. One that lies on the knife’s edge of hope and despair. It is a feeling that strikes me with panic, with anger, with overwhelming sadness over the loss of so much life in this country. It is a feeling that warrants complexity in consideration. It is a feeling that demands the cinematic voice of Spike Lee.

For nearly 40 years, Brooklyn’s unofficial mascot has gifted the world with a body of work that is as provocative as it is inviting, as entertaining as it is heart wrenching. Spike has been the filmic voice of Black America - both a gross understatement of the myriad POC artists who have also contributed nuanced statements brimming with purpose and intelligence, and a hard truth that too few filmmakers of color have had the stage on which to share their vision with the world at large. Spike has been there to televise the revolution, to render gorgeous portraits of Black life across this nation, to ask the hardest questions - unafraid and unwavering in his polemic and his politics. His cinema is aspirational and inspirational, timeless and timely. And it is utterly necessary right now.

Consider this a starting point to one of America’s greatest and most prolific auteurs, as commented on by Black critics. There’s far too much to be written about any one of these films than could be contained in this article, so there’s plenty more where this came from. Ya dig? Sho ‘nuff.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Fresh out of NYU with a Master’s in film production and plenty to prove, Spike cannonballed into the cinematic world stage with this portrait of Nola Darling, a twenty-something Black artist who contains so many multitudes that she carries on with several disparate lovers all at once. The film is overflowing with style, wit and a fearlessness that would become a trademark of Spike’s subsequent work. As The Guardian’s Esi Edugyan puts it, “in the mid-80s, the frankness of this polyamory, the rawness of Lee’s portrayal of sexuality and his characterisation of a young woman through her sexual relationships – even the very existence of a Black film written and directed by a Black auteur – all seemed, if not controversial, then certainly remarkable.”

The film was an enormous success when initially released - earning over $7 million on a $175,000 budget and effectively launching Lee’s career to new levels overnight. Still, its reputation has come under more intense scrutiny as of late, specifically in relation to a third-act turn that sees one of Nola’s lovers rape her out of spite. Spike has walked back that storytelling decision in the press in recent years, and even added to the conversation he started with a Netflix show that resituates Nola’s journey in contemporary America. 

As much as the controversy has sullied the film’s reputation, it remains an explosive artifact of all that was to come from the auteur. “So much seemed out of reach to me, then, but not impossible,” writes Edugyan further. “Towards the end of the film, Nola is asked: “What are you searching for? Do you think you’re ever going to find it?” She cannot find an answer. What she is seeking goes beyond the sexual: it has something to do with finding a way to hold on to choice, her right to shun social expectations and the narrow world of her bourgeois childhood. It has something to do, in other words, with a need for freedom, which is felt as keenly today.”

School Daze (1988)

At the height of Apartheid and the consumerism of Reagen-era America, Spike looked into his past for inspiration on his second feature, School Daze. Taking a more discerning look at the culture of historic Black college campuses, including his own alma mater Morehouse College, the film follows a sprawling ensemble of students as they navigate where their allegiances lie. As Jourdain Searles of Thrillist puts it, “Lee uses the backdrop of [the fictional] Mission College's homecoming weekend to juxtapose the capitalist mindset of American exceptionalism that the Black middle class had adopted in the '80s with the wider global struggle that endures outside the cushy confines of new money, unable to access the comforts and safety of success.”

The film offers a captivating, albeit messy, dialectic about differing philosophies amongst the Black community, commenting on activism, beauty and what defines a Black person’s self-worth. It’s equal-parts musical comedy (replete with a dance number that would make Busby Berkeley beam with envy) and a no-holds-barred portrait of fraternities on these campuses. “School Daze is one of the few films to address colorism head-on, and depicts the various ways Black men respond to Black women depending on their skin tone, facial features, and hair,” Searles writes. “It is no surprise then that Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta University revoked access to their campuses during shooting, citing concerns over how HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities] were being depicted in the film. Lee had to finish filming at the neighboring Morris Brown College to remain on schedule.” Searles continues: “Personally, I think the colleges were too hasty in dismissing Lee’s vision, which seems to be a call for HBCUs to expand their concerns to black people outside the protective bubble of institutional money and career connections. School Daze takes on the heavy business of asking us as a people to hold onto our empathy and strive to expand it - first to each other, and then the world.”

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Empathy takes up an enormous amount of acreage in Spike’s cinematic world, and there’s perhaps no better evocation of that sentiment - maybe even in all of world cinema - than Do the Right Thing. Rightly regarded as the filmmaker’s greatest masterpiece, the film takes place on a single, blisteringly hot summer day in the mixed-race neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. Lee masterfully captures the personal lives of Bed-Stuy’s many denizens and tracks the mounting tensions between the Black, Italian and Korean communities that collide on a single city block.

Like much of his work, the film offers no easy answers and was met with derision upon release from many critics - white and Black - who feared its supposed “mixed messaging” would result in anarchy on the streets. As Stanley Crouch wrote during the film’s initial release, “[Lee] is for now a propagandist, one who reduces the world to a shorthand projected with such force that the very power of the projection itself will make those with tall grass for brains bend to the will of the wind...Do the Right Thing, for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.” It feels outright insane to lobby such an argument against a film that speaks as directly to the nature of xenophobia today as it did three decades ago, but the way the conversation around this film has evolved over time is key to understanding its power.

As a more recent review by Little White Lies’ Kambole Campbell puts it, “almost everyone in the film is just as capable of hatred as they are kindness, perhaps the most memorable instance prior to the final act being a montage of characters spitting cruel, racist insults about each other straight down the camera...Lee’s film remains a bold expression of love and frustration and care and anger that is so vivid and expressive it feels like it exists in the here and now.”

Malcolm X (1992)

Rarely has a biographical subject had a better match of temperament and mission statement than it does here. Lee’s Malcolm X looks and sounds exactly like the kind of sprawling epic Hollywood returns to every decade or so - only its incredible technical prowess is matched by a film brimming with ideas about identity, about the construct of Blackness, about a man grappling with his faith, his entire ethos and reason for being. As The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins writes, “from its very opening frames [Malcolm X] still singes with urgent confrontation. The movie opens with the righteous noise of one of Malcolm X’s speeches...corralling us to look on as a burning American flag fills the screen. That image is interspersed, shockingly, with glimpses of Rodney King getting beaten. As the images skin our eyes, jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s terrifying funeral march sears our eardrums. Over the course of a few minutes, that American flag burns away. All that’s left, in the end, is an X - a gesture that brings Malcolm X’s fierce rhetoric, to say nothing of his status as an icon, into the present, feverishly, with a harrowing sense of fury.”

Recontextualizing the past with our knowledge from the present is something Spike would return to several times over in his career, but rarely has such an act played out as powerfully as it does here...which makes the fact that the film was nearly taken away from Lee all the more ironic. Collins writes further, “[the film] would capture the full evolution of a richly complicated man - which sounds expensive because it was. Warner Bros. thought so, too. There were drawn-out fights between Lee and the studio, and then between Lee and the bond company putting up the money. It eventually got dire enough that Lee had to call on Black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby to help him foot the bill, giving him more control over the direction of the movie. “It came in at $34 million,” Lee told Roger Ebert at the time, “which is what I thought it had to cost.” It’s a minor miracle the film hit theaters with Lee’s vision intact, and another example of the lengths to which the auteur would go to speak to an audience without anything holding him back, least of all white executives.

BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The film that brought Spike’s voice front and center in the public consciousness for a whole new generation, BlacKKKlansman is the too-good-to-believe-it’s-true story of Ron Stalworth, a Black police officer who infiltrated the Klan in early-1970s Colorado. The film is a true hybrid between Spike’s sensibilities as politically-minded provocateur and his inclination to entertain at every turn - yet, the film’s greatest master stroke is likely its profound and troubling coda, which sees this 1970s-set story capitulate to footage of neo-Nazis marching on Charlottesville in 2017.

When interviewed last year during the film’s awards campaign trail, Spike told it like it is: “I was not one of those individuals who was hoodwinked or bamboozled into thinking that when my brother Barack Hussein Obama put his right hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible there would be a magical moment and we’ll enter the post-racial world. I wasn’t going for it. Hell no. I do not believe that for a second. Another lie, another false narrative.” Yet, for all the false narratives Spike has worked to break down with his films, some took considerable issue with the choice to cast a positive light on the police - an institution that has arguably been a safe-haven for racists and closeted Klansmen. Filmmaker Boots Riley was fervently critical of Spike’s take on this story, tweeting “to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines - we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing.” Criticism and backlash is something Lee has long gotten used to experiencing when releasing new work - it comes with the territory, especially when your perspective is so exacting. Still, it casts this work in a different light that gives one reason to pause and consider further, especially with the events that have rocked this nation in the past several weeks.


No matter your perspective on Spike Lee, there’s no denying the substantial imprint he has made on American screens. Few filmmakers have been able to create a single work with as much complexity as every one of his films have - all of which speak to this moment in our culture in ways both broad and small. As this article underlined earlier, there is far too much to be said about so many other films Spike has churned out at an impossible clip - from his exploration of interracial love in Jungle Fever, to his dramatization of the road to the Million Man March in Get on the Bus, to his elegy for New York and the soul of this country post-911 in 25th Hour. His filmography is as dense as it is demanding, as mystifying as it is masterful - and that’s the double-truth, Ruth.