If all Spike Lee did was create movie careers for some of our finest actors, that would have been plenty.
Folks such as Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, John David Washington (whose dad, Denzel, is also a Lee regular), Kerry Washington, Rosie Perez and John Turturro had breakthrough roles in Lee movies, which he prefers to call “joints.” Many have become part of his repertory company, revealing new dimensions of their talents and making strides to counter the underrepresentation of African-American people on screen.
Lee always has been willing to cast actors in unexpected ways. Who else would have seen Miss USA runner-up Berry as a bedraggled crack addict in “Jungle Fever”? A similar sense of experimentation courses through his movies, which makes him both inconsistent (2012’s “Red Hook Summer” and 2014’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” are virtually unwatchable) but also one of our most adventurous filmmakers, from his comedic debut “She’s Gotta Have It” to his lacerating documentaries. Next up will be a concert film of David Byrne’s “American Utopia.”
Never afraid of a big gesture, Lee goes for broke every time he directs (which is a lot — his IMDB page lists eight projects for 2014 alone, which might be part of the problem with “Da Sweet Blood”). Lee seems less interested in “reality,” whatever that is, than in bold statements about existence, particularly black existence. Which is one reason his characters don’t even move through the world like real people.
In Lee’s signature camera trick, which he has called a “Spikeism” but which is technically a double dolly shot, a lead character appears to walk-glide toward us, without the up-and-down movement that usually comes from using your feet. Introduced in “Do the Right Thing,” the unnerving effect pops up in many Lee movies. He’s even done it with both Washingtons: dad Denzel in “Malcolm X” and son John David in “BlacKkKlansman,” in both cases at moments of truth for their characters.
So, yes. His fondness for big gestures can make a Spike Lee movie go south, but when they work — as these seven do — they really work.
‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)
I saw it again recently, and Lee’s look at racial tensions coming to a head in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day anyone can remember is as angry and compassionate as ever. Beginning with an electrifying opening credits sequence (Perez, dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) and climaxing with a shocking betrayal, “Do the Right Thing” is a straight-up masterpiece.
‘When the Levees Broke’ (2006)
Lee’s intimate tour of post-Katrina New Orleans is a denunciation of the institutional racism that meant the city’s most vulnerable people were hit hardest by the hurricane, a prayer for the struggling souls Lee meets and a faint, hopeful plea to revive one of the country’s quirkiest cities. Composer Terence Blanchard, frequent Lee collaborator and New Orleans native, wrote the mournful score.
‘25th Hour’ (2002)
Edward Norton stars as a New York drug dealer on his final day before entering prison. Coming only a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, “25th Hour” boldly connects its main character’s attempts to accept responsibility for his own tragedy with what Lee perceives as this country’s failure to do so.
‘4 Little Girls’ (1997)
Maybe the quietest movie Lee has made, the documentary about the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls lets the shocking events speak for themselves. Lee’s cameras revisit the scene in Birmingham, Ala., with friends and family members looking back on the day that changed their lives. (Like “Do the Right Thing,” “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Malcom X,” it’s listed on the National Film Registry.)
‘Inside Man’ (2006)
When Lee tries to bend his talent to fit conventional genres, the results vary (there’s great stuff in his “Malcolm X” but its adherence to biopic tropes makes it feel stodgy). “Inside Man,” though, is nothing but fun. The twisty caper boasts big stars in flashy parts, with Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer as fast-talking good or bad guys who get involved in a bank heist. The title may seem like a spoiler but that ends up being part of the joke.
‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (1986)
Tracy Camilla Johns was a find as Nola Darling, the confident center of Lee’s jazzy romcom about a woman with options. It’s also the movie debut of the great S. Epatha Merkerson, who would become a star as a tut-tutting detective on TV’s “Law & Order.”
‘School Daze’ (1988)
Lee’s most exuberant film alternates wild choreography with social commentary. Set at a dance-crazed historically black college, “School Daze” is a bright comedy/drama about the artificial divisions we create between ourselves. The enormous cast wears the op-art work of first-time costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who became a frequent Lee collaborator and won an Oscar for “Black Panther.”