Always outspoken, determined and confident – Spike Lee has been one of the most active and influential artists making movies in America for the past thirty years. Although it is important to mention his influence as an African-American filmmaker, he also stamped a style and tempo which snapped at the heels of narrative with colour, energy and bite. He has made films that were unanimously praised, caused debate and even ones that have been generally panned – but his films are never ignored.
When Sidney Poitier slapped actor Larry Gates in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, it was seminal – one of the first instances of a black man striking a white man on the silver screen. It jolted people and it mirrored a social spirit of a nation in a split instance, a way that cinema only can. But the man behind the camera, in the producers chair and even behind the screenplay were all white, the industry was still a tough reality for non-white artists, it still is to an extent.
When Spike Lee emerged in the late 80’s with his lo-fi debut She’s Gotta Have it and the bold Do the Right Thing, the industry felt a slap, a thud of cinematic flair, character and genius that represented racial politics and was made by someone from the opposite perspective. Before Spike Lee, African-American cinema was alive, but reduced to either exploitation cinema or forgotten, rarely seen masterpieces like Charles Barnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep. Since Lee’s breakthrough, through the 90’s and 2000’s more perspectives from behind the camera were given in the American film industry, but even to this day, the balance still isn’t right, but it is at least rolling in the right direction and Lee will always be regarded as a pioneer of this in the industry.
His influence in cinema’s own narrative aside, Lee as a filmmaker and the movies he makes are as diverse as anyone in the business. Dipping in and out of independent and studio productions, making historical biographies and cutting documentaries to indie statements to popcorn thrillers – his next project is in fact a vampire movie funded entirely through Kickstarter. Whilst he has made waves, it must also be said that he doesn’t always get it right.
Lee’s latest film, a remake of Oldboy, is tame and tiresome to say the least, it reminds you of some of the flaws that have existed in portions of his work; the overlong final acts, style tripping over its laces and getting tone and performances just off the mark. So, to balance the criticism that surrounds his film this week, it would be nice to massage his ego and remind us of the fact that he is, or can be, a magnificent filmmaker.
Here are his prime cuts, his most potent joints – a selection of his 6 best films:
6. Clockers (1995)
A film wrapped in the bloody, deprived rags of drugs and murder set in and around an inner city Brooklyn housing project. It dips perspectives between the police, those ‘in the game’ and those just caught in-between. In fact, it’s almost a blue print for the benchmark TV show The Wire, so it is no surprise that the screenplay is written by Lee and Richard Price, the latter who went on to be one of the writers for The Wire.
There is a real flare of cinematic technique that Lee uses through the film, his trademark high energy is visible in every frame – buts it’s the colours, the sharp editing and slimy lighting that go hand in hand with the grit and gravel of the reality he is depicting – it really mirrors the lure of a hustler lifestyle, whilst shining the warning of wasting away futures with the very same lifestyle. The performances jump out, Harvey Keitel and John Turturro are expectedly great as the two committed detectives resigned to the social situation, but it is Mekhi Phifer, who in his first role, is full of charm and worry as a young drug dealer caught in the middle of a murder investigation.
While the film is ever so slightly bloated, it is a terrific and often forgotten gem in Spike Lee’s filmography that is rich enough to create debate about the characters, the society it depicts and even the narrative of the film with everyone who watches it.