The 18 Best Spike Lee Movies, Ranked

From 'Do the Right Thing' to 'Da 5 Bloods,' the prolific director continues to churn out essential films.

spike lee movies
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

Spike Lee is, without a doubt, among the most important American directors who has ever lived. As much a personality as he is a gifted storyteller, Lee is a prolific filmmaker who has become one of pop culture's most recognizable faces. He established his bona fides with the 1986 low-budget charmer She's Gotta Have It, which arrived right as Hollywood's indie scene was heating up, and proved to be unimpeachable when Do the Right Thing blossomed into an immediate classic three years later. Since then, Lee has made more than 30 movies, including social dramas, documentaries, and concert films. You can also spot him on New York University's campus, where he teaches, and courtside at Knicks games, cheering on his favorite team.

In celebration of Lee's still-hot career, we ranked his 18 best movies thus far.

Universal Pictures

18. Jungle Fever (1991)

Packed with gripping performances, head-scratching asides, and bracing ideas, Jungle Fever remains one of Lee's most audacious films, a romantic drama about class and race told with formal rigor and startling thematic swings. In one of his career-best performances, Wesley Snipes plays Flipper Purify, an established Black architect with a wife and daughter who finds himself pursuing an Italian American woman (Annabella Sciorra) hired as his temp secretary. Zeroing in on professional anxieties, social codes, and sexual neurosis with his typical level of precision, Lee's movie often feels like it's in conversation with itself in the best way, exploring tricky concepts while grounding the drama in everyday conflicts and relatable emotions. Even the parts that don't quite work are enlivened by a wildly impressive supporting cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Tim Robbins, Halle Berry, and more. —Dan Jackson


17. David Byrne's American Utopia (2020)

In the thick of the pandemic, when Broadway was shut down, Spike Lee and David Byrne gave us a gift: Lee's filmed version of Byrne's electrifying stage show American Utopia. The concert film feels, in some ways, like an homage to both artists' previous work. Byrne, alongside director Jonathan Demme, made the genre's pinnacle with Stop Making Sense, while Lee's Passing Strange innovated stage productions captured on film. Their alchemy that was bound to work. As Byrne and his team of astounding dancers and musicians power through their repertoire, Lee's camera highlights the intricacy of Annie-B Parson's choreography while also taking the audience closer than they will ever get in a Broadway house. It's a testament to the movement of the human body, an exhilarating experience enclosed in a screen. —Esther Zuckerman

Amazon Studios

16. Chi-Raq (2015)

A searing barn burner that turns Lysistrata into a genre-defying musical, Chi-Raq takes an audacious premise and creates a satire at once amusing and stark. Using the battle cry "no peace, no pussy," the girlfriends of two warring gangs on Chicago's South Side withhold sex from their partners until the violence ends. The women's strike escalates, but the men can't bring themselves to put away their guns, resulting in military and police intervention. Chi-Raq boasts one of Lee's starriest casts—Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, La La Anthony—and scrappiest productions while still tackling poignant issues in his signature style. —Matthew Jacobs

Universal Pictures

15. Mo' Better Blues (1990)

Tasked with following up his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, Lee decided to turn his attention to the past, examining the professional and romantic entanglements of jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington). The late-'60s period setting allows the filmmaker to dazzle with his gift for production design and costuming, conjuring a whole world of smoke-filled clubs, cramped hallways, and sweaty bedrooms. Watching Bleek and his band onstage is also a reminder that few filmmakers have such a keen understanding of how to shoot musical performances. In his first collaboration with Washington, Lee allows his charismatic star to play a man trapped by his own warring impulses and his creative passions. It's one of Lee's sharpest works about artistry and ambition. —DJ

Focus Features

14. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

After more than three decades of notable films, Lee finally got a sweep of Oscar nominations for BlacKkKlansman, including his first-ever Best Director nod and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Like many of his films, the drama, based on Ron Stallworth's 2014 memoir, is complicated and timely, telling Stallworth's story of how he as a Black detective infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the '70s while experiencing racism on the police force. As Stallworth, John David Washington is given a star vehicle, and the deft Adam Driver accomplishes an ambitious twofold performance as Detective Philip Zimmerman, Stallworth's Jewish partner who goes undercover. Although the film can play like a procedural, Lee elevates its complexities by weaving in powerful monologues from anti-racist activists, nods to racist moments in film history, and montages of present-day footage. It's as entertaining a crime story as it is a disconcerting indictment of hate. —Sadie Bell

Columbia Pictures

13. School Daze (1988)

In arguably the most iconic moment in the HBCU-set musical comedy School Daze, Laurence Fishburne's campus activist Vaughn "Dap" Dunlap runs across the quad to yell into the camera "Wake up!" It plays out literally in the movie's final scene, as Dap rushes into dorms to get his classmates out of bed. But the fourth-wall break is aimed at everyone, the characters and watchers of Lee's second feature film, in which he stars as Dap's cousin Half-Pint, to get a freaking clue about myriad racial and political points he's made through the narrative. Set on homecoming weekend at the fictional Mission College in Atlanta, School Daze touches on a bit of everything—colorism within the Black community, natural hair, how Black women are treated, the Black middle class, burdensome student workloads, apartheid, fraternity culture, and, of course, the importance of historically Black colleges and universities—which at times makes the film feel slightly fractured, but no less compelling. A prescient piece that got Lee and his crew kicked off shooting at real HBCUs due to worries about how they'd be portrayed before wrapping at Morris Brown College, School Daze woke up audiences with its necessary messaging long before things like Dear White People and Higher Learning came around. —Leanne Butkovic

Touchstone Pictures

12. He Got Game (1998)

Unsurprisingly, Lee's take on the "sports movie" is not a conventional underdog tale. Known for both his iconic Nike commercials and his appearances courtside at Knicks games, the filmmaker understands the complexities of professional basketball, particularly the interplay between money and athleticism, at a deep, granular level. He Got Game stars real-life hoops star Ray Allen as a talented young college recruit and Denzel Washington as his troubled father, a convicted murderer freed from prison by the governor to recruit his son for the governor's preferred university. It's a provocative premise that Lee expands on in his typically sprawling manner, indicting the systems of willful exploitation surrounding basketball while still finding beauty and poetry in the game itself. —DJ


11. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)

Spike Lee knows exactly how to prod a story to get his viewers to direct their anger at society's political failures without spoon-feeding them, and his Emmy-winning four-part HBO docuseries about the governmental bungles at every level and its human impact during and after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans will make your blood boil. Lee channels the spirit of the city, soundtracking the film to NOLA jazz and tapping local artists to lend their voices. He talks to locals, community leaders, journalists, and politicians about what went down in the storm's aftermath, his camera and editing choices never flinching from the inhumane horrors of neighborhoods in peril. While he pours empathy upon those affected, he has none to spare (and righteously so) for officials, particularly George Bush and his administration's incompetence and lack of compassion in their crisis response. Almost two decades after When the Levees Broke came out, it remains an enormously important documentary and a crucial account of one of the U.S.'s worst recent natural disasters made even worse by the people in power. —LB


10. Da 5 Bloods (2020)

After the Oscars finally recognized Lee for his work on BlackKklansman, it was shocking how much his bold follow-up was ignored. Lee tackled and revitalized a long-gestating project about a group of Vietnam veterans who return to uncover a buried fortune near where their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman in a haunting performance shortly before his own death) died. Lee and Kevin Willmott rewrote the existing screenplay to focus on a group of Black former soldiers grappling with their role in American imperialism overseas as their own country disenfranchises Black citizens. It's an almost shockingly gory action epic with a propelling treasure hunt of a plot that also stops to consider atrocities at home and abroad. And it's all anchored by a stunning performance from Delroy Lindo—one of the most egregious Oscar snubs in recent years—as the Trump-supporting member of the group, whose hubristic downfall is Shakespearean in its tragedy. —EZ


9. 4 Little Girls (1997)

Spike Lee's heartbreaking nonfiction film recalls the events of September 15, 1963, when Klansmen detonated a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. Parsing the violent streak against Black Americans during the civil rights movement, empathizing with the families who suffered the greatest loss imaginable, and nailing an interview with George Wallace—the segregationist governor of Alabama at the time of the attack—whose atonement for fueling racist ideology can barely breach his cantankerous shell, 4 Little Girls is a masterpiece that needs to be seen and remembered. —DJ

Universal Pictures

8. Clockers (1995)

If any Lee film could be called underrated, it's Clockers, a down-and-dirty adaptation of Richard Price's 1992 novel that was previously helmed by Martin Scorsese before Scorsese decided to direct his passion project Casino instead. Lee's film stars 8 Mile's Mekhi Phifer in his debut role as Ronald "Strike" Dunham, a "clocker"—a street-level drug dealer—whose life is overturned by murder when his local drug lord Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) tells him to kill one of his dealers who keeps stealing the supply. When the man ends up dead, homicide detectives Klein (Harvey Keitel) and Mazilli (John Turturro) patrol the streets attempting to find out who did it, but in a maze of false confessions and contradicting narratives, the job is much harder than it seems, especially once the rest of the clockers begin to turn on Strike. —Emma Stefansky

Island Pictures

7. She's Gotta Have It (1986)

The film that launched Spike Lee's career also immediately showcased his brand of wry wit and attention to detail. Filmed in black and white, this romantic comedy of errors stars Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling, a graphic artist living the dream in an enviably beautiful Brooklyn apartment while juggling three suitors: mature yet stolid Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), narcissistic model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and boyish and fast-talking bike messenger Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee himself, the first of many roles he'd play in his own films). Unable to commit to any one of them, Nola cherishes her sexual freedom and refuses to tie herself to monogamy. The tables turn when the three lovers meet up and compare notes, expressing frustration that Nola refuses to settle down with one man, and decide to call her bluff. The tone shift in the third act of the film and its surprise coda further show how deftly Lee balances comedy with drama, while always allowing his characters to remain authentic versions of themselves. —ES

New Line Cinema

6. Bamboozled (2000)

Working in a similar register as Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd and Sydney Lumet's Network, Bamboozled exposes the moral rot within the entertainment industry and American culture without engaging in the smug back-patting that undermines so much contemporary satire. Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated television executive who attempts to get fired from his soul-sucking job by putting on the most offensive program he can think of. His creation, a comedic variety show involving performers in blackface called The New Millennium Minstrel Show, proves irresistible to the public, sending Delacroix down a path to personal ruin. Primarily shot on MiniDV cameras, the film has a digital smeariness and a jittery intensity that complements the jarring narrative shifts and unapologetically bleak comedy. Riotously funny and achingly sad, Bamboozled plunders the past while turning a prophetic eye to the future. —DJ

Universal Pictures

5. Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man is one of the filmmaker's efforts to adapt his flair into a studio action movie. He brings his slickness to Russell Gewirtz's bank-robbery screenplay, creating something extremely watchable that falls between a big-budget heist movie and a '70s-inspired downtown New York thriller. Denzel Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier, an NYPD hostage negotiator who's called to a scene on a post-9/11 Wall Street where masked robbers have taken control of a bank and forced hostages to dress in their exact disguise. When the bank founder (Christopher Plummer) hires a fixer (Jodie Foster), Lee plays against heist-movie tropes to keep you on your toes until the very end. The film begins with the lead robber (Clive Owen) declaring he's developed an impenetrable heist, and while his plan ends up working to perfection, it's Lee's direction that makes the movie's twists and turns so sharp. —SB

Warner Bros.

4. Malcolm X (1992)

Often biopics struggle to do justice to their subject matter, but not Spike Lee's towering Malcolm X, which adapts The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a sprawling, nearly three-and-a-half-hour film. Lee traces Malcolm's evolution from zoot-suit-wearing gambler to devout Muslim to national icon and activist, all the while playing with style and tone but never taking away from the central performance. After their collaboration on Mo' Better Blues, Lee entrusts Denzel Washington with carrying the story, embodying all of Malcolm's brilliance as well as his contradictions. All these years later, it is still remarkable that Malcolm X was even made: It's long, it's controversial, and it's stunning. —EZ

Universal Pictures

3. Crooklyn (1994)

In between the heavy dramas Malcolm X and Clockers, Lee made his most charming movie—and his most personal. A slice-of-life family comedy told primarily from the perspective of scrappy 9-year-old Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris), Crooklyn is loosely based on Lee’s own childhood. He wrote the script with two of his siblings, borrowing their mother’s illness as the foundation for Troy’s coming-of-age. Despite its bittersweet undercurrent, the film thrives on Lee’s whimsical sense of humor, as evidenced when a fight about watching TV spills out of the kids’ bedroom and finds them all—Mom (a fantastic Alfre Woodard) and Dad (Delroy Lindo) included—tumbling down the stairs while The Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” plays. —MJ

Touchstone Pictures

2. 25th Hour (2002)

Before David Benioff co-ran Game of Thrones, he published his debut novel The 25th Hour, a slow-burn drama about a man's last 24 hours of freedom before going to prison for dealing drugs. Spike Lee's adaptation, which came out a year later, stars Edward Norton as convicted dealer Monty Brogan, a soft-spoken man with questionable taste in facial hair who was snitched on to the DEA and now faces a seven-year prison sentence that he's terrified to serve. Determined to find out who betrayed him before he and his father (Brian Cox) drive to the prison in the morning, Monty spends his last night of freedom questioning the other dealers while also trying to have a good time with his loved ones: his childhood friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and shy schoolteacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), who may or may not be the traitor. —ES

Universal Pictures

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)

It's not dramatic to call Do the Right Thing the blueprint, because it is. While it wasn't Lee's debut, it was certainly the film that made him the director we know today. Over one hot summer day, Lee explores the rising tensions between a Brooklyn neighborhood's Black residents and an Italian American family who own a local pizzeria. In 1989, Lee was able to dissect complicated racial politics through one urban neighborhood—between Mookie (Lee) and Pino (John Turturro), Pino and Sal (Danny Aiello)—and excavate both the joy and sadness of its residents. The film was revolutionary at its time, and it sadly still reverberates decades later. —Kerensa Cadenas

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