True's Top Five: Spike Lee Films

For a few decades now, Spike Lee has brought his brand of cinematic genius to the table by mixing social commentary, comedy, harsh realities and a look into multiple elements of the black experience. Today, I wanted to explore the top five Spike Lee films and help to summarize the legacy he's created. As always, my criteria for picking the top five is not based on bias, but rather movie quality, importance and cultural impact. While some films, such as School Daze and Jungle Fever, tackled very vital topics of society, the films itself didn't resonate enough to crack the list. Gritty films such as Clockers and 25th Hour were amazing, but didn't make the cut. While Spike has a slew of classics with Denzel Washington, such as the underrated Inside Man, the smooth Mo Better Blues, and the iconic He Got Game, only one of their films actually made the list(I'm sure you can figure out which one).

Unfortunately, his female centered films such as She's Gotta Have It and Girl 6 (accompanied by great music from Prince) do not crack the top 5, but as always they hold a place in our hearts. That is, of course, sans the Girl 6 ending. Just...yeah. My point in naming all the films of his that DIDN'T crack the top five is to further explain how tough it is to narrow down the top five films from Spike. With such a hefty and plentiful filmography, Spike stands as my favorite director ever and one of the greatest of all time. Now, without further ado...

5. Get On The Bus

This is a film that I feel is a slept on gem, but extremely important. From the message of the film to the showcase of brotherhood amongst our people despite disagreement, Get On The Bus took a look at the path of some brothers headed to the Million Man March. The beauty of the film to me is that a large part of it is completely focused solely on dialogue amongst strangers who previously never met, but were brought together by a common cause.

As the men from all walks of life sat on a bus and talked back and forth about various topics, all you focused on in the moment was what they said, who agreed, who disagreed, and why. This was mostly due in part to one of the main characters, Xavier, conducting interviews for a documentary he was in the process of creating. The bus trip spawns many interesting moments, as one passenger is forced off the bus and abandoned on the road, racist cops pull the bus over and search it, and finally, an older passenger experiences some fatal complications. 

At its core, Get On The Bus is a movie about embracing each other as brothers while still acknowledging the challenges that we face and the understanding that is needed. The beauty of it is that this movie basically tackled that within a 2 hour simulated bus ride across the country with just dialogue, debate, and awareness. If you have never seen this film, I advise you to check it out.

4. Crooklyn

I absolutely love this film. It’s a semi-autobiographical look into Spike's life growing up in NY, with added elements to enhance the story. Based around a family led by an out of work musician and a struggling school teacher, Crooklyn follows the twists and turns that life can bring to you. The perspective of the movie is largely based through the eyes of Troy, who is growing up under the struggle of being the only girl in the family amongst four brothers. The film plays out in everyday life scenarios, with Troy attempting to steal at one point for food, Troy being sent to a family member's house for a duration, and even taking her brother's nickel collection to go buy ice cream for her and a friend. Now, while you may read those and think "everyday life scenarios?,” it’s more accurate that you'd know.

Growing up in the environments that we did, so many outrageous things seemed commonplace. Most of these experiences were just a part of your narrative, and whether right or wrong, you chalked up the lessons from what occurs. Troy, the center of the movie, is extremely close to her mother and the film starts to break down when she's sent away to live with a family member for a while. Upon her return back to NY, things have changed. Her mother is gravely ill and it seems everyone but Troy knew what to expect. When her mother passes away, Troy takes on a role that she's not quite ready for as the woman of the family. The film closes with her in this role and left a lasting impression. There are so many families who lose the mother and/or the father pretty early on, and one of the children are forced to step up and almost fill the role. Crooklyn provides you with a look of that story, along with a look at growing up in the inner city, which was familiar to me.

3. Bamboozled

Personally, this might be my favorite Spike Lee film. I've watched it over and over again, and every time I do, I find that the film gets better and better. In many ways, this is a satirical film that looks at what would occur if there was a minstrel show on TV in the 2000s. In some ways, it is a look into the psyche that mainstream media has with us and our culture. In another way, this is a look at how far some brothers will go just to have that success. This movie encompasses all these components to create a strong message, which may confuse you at times, but I think that is the point.

The confusion starts with how over the top and exaggerated some of the characters and scenes are, but the clarity comes once you strip down the meaning beneath it all. Damon Wayans is superb in his role, as the subservient executive to Michael Rapaport's racist Network president character. And while his ridiculous "good talking negro" voice (as I've heard it described in interviews) elicits quite a bit of laughs, it’s an added touch to the exaggerated nature of the film.

As the film draws to a close, with Damon Wayans feeling like he sold out his culture for success, fame, and money, we end up at a very dark place. Beyond the tap dancing, blackface, selling out of the culture, watermelon eating, and all the various stereotypical elements, the film breaks down with some senseless violence. Mos Def's character Big Blak Afrika and his crew kidnap the star of the minstrel show (played by Savion Glover) and film themselves murdering him in cold blood. In the following scene, Big Blak Afrika and his crew are killed by the police, with the exception of the one white member who proclaims that he is black while being arrested.

The film closes with Damon Wayans being shot and laying out to die, as the various images of minstrel shows and offensive black TV images play. I, for one, was so confused by the ending initally, until I realized what Spike was going for. Notice in these final scenes that the only ones dying are US, those of color. We hold each other accountable for the selling out of the culture, and kidnapped the star of the show to kill him to send a message, when in reality, the white Network president should be the one taken to task. 

Then, Damon's character, riddled with guilt, accepts his fate for death under the guise that he did it to himself. In the middle of it all, the white characters lived to see another day and the Network president will find a new executive to kiss his ass regardless. While it was very exaggerated, there's no denying that the cycle displayed in these chain of events is relevant, even to this day. Jada Pinkett is great in this film as well, attempting to be a voice of reason while struggling with her own issues (she's also Big Blak Afrika's sister). Thomas Jefferson Byrd however, steals the film as Honeycutt, along with an iconic scene that reminds you, if nothing else, that "Niggas Are A Beautiful Thing" apparently.

2. Do The Right Thing

It’s very rare that a film's social message is still relevant 25 plus years after its release, but here we are. This film ended up transcending cultures, solidifying Spike as a top tier director, while showcasing the very real race problem, that still exists today and honestly, probably always will. The film features the debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence, in essence jumpstarting two careers that went in great directions. Spike plays the lead character Mookie, who has a son with Tina, Rosie's character and works at a Pizza place ran by Sal (played by Danny Aiello).

As the film develops, you see the racial tensions start to boil as Mookie's friend Buggin Out protests the wall of fame in Sal's pizza shop for only featuring Italians on the wall and is backed by their other friends, namely Radio Raheem. Radio Raheem was infamous for walking around with his boombox and blaring his music, and as the racial tensions reached a fever pitch, his boombox became a casualty. 

Sal, in a fit of racist rage called Raheem the N-word and broke his boombox, which led to Raheem attacking him. Where the movie begins to break down is at this very moment. The cops come to break up the scene and ended up choking Radio Raheem to death. After the cops end up killing Raheem, they fled the scene, leaving an angry mob to direct their anger at Sal, his workers and his pizza place. 

Eventually, as the film closes, a truce is reached between Sal and Mookie, and the neighborhood goes back to coping with the racial tensions amidst everyday life. The racial tension, the police brutality/murder, the anger directed at each other, are all a product of what we are facing today. In some ways, it’s very sad to look at today's society and this film to see that while small changes have been made, we really haven't evolved much. Do The Right Thing managed to captured something that seemingly will always resonate.

1. Malcolm X

What else would there be? The biopic based on Alex Haley's book is a cinematic masterpiece and quite possibly Denzel Washington's best role. Capturing the true poise and essence of Malcolm has never been so eloquently executed until this particular film and I'm sure it won't be duplicated ever again. Angela Bassett is glorious in her role as Betty, Malcolm's wife, and the storytelling here flows rather smoothly over 200 minutes, as those 3 plus hours feel like they go by rather quickly.

From the early days in Harlem to his jail stints to his joining of the Nation of Islam, Spike attempts to bring to life the journey of Malcolm Little to become Malcolm X and subsequently, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The film, which got Denzel a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars (which he should have won), has managed to be one of the only pieces of cinema that acknowledges the power and the movement of Malcolm and his cultural significance.

Hollywood was oddly receptive to this film, and I can only imagine that they enjoyed reaping some of the benefits of Malcolm hats, T-shirts, pendants, and other trinkets that were sold even more in bulk after the film hit the mainstream. However, that doesn't take away from the impact that this film had, immortalizing Malcolm in film, our history, and through entertainment. While the film didn't go on to gross tremendously, it is widely viewed as a classic film and rightfully so. It is on my list of all-time favorite movies, and it stands as Spike's greatest film beyond a shadow of a doubt. Long Live Malcolm.



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