Spike Lee is the most prolific black filmmaker of his generation. No filmmaker has made more films, and polarized viewers as much for his artistry and his politics as has Lee. Tyler Perry arguably has more mainstream success, but Lee has earned more respect over time. From his 1986 debut “She’s Gotta Have It” to his latest “Red Hook Summer,” Lee, now 55, is more auteur than most people realize. His unrepentant vision and his commitment to telling a story the way his unique creative eye sees it makes him both revered by his fans and hated by his detractors. Lee has released 18 feature films, made 12 documentaries and executive produced several other film projects, winning an Emmy for his HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke” about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Yet there are a few of his films that have somehow gone less heralded than others. We pay tribute to five of our favorite underrated Spike Lee joints.
GET ON THE BUS (1996)
Twelve men from the Los Angeles area travel to Washington, D.C. to attend the Million Man March in 1995. Along the way, they debate, argue and make stops, some of which turn out to be troublesome. This movie premiered on the one-year anniversary of the March and starred several Lee regulars including Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Roger Guenveur Smith. Isaiah Washington, Ossie Davis, Wendell Pierce (who went on to star in“The Wire”) and Bernie Mac also appear. In “Get On the Bus” conflicts become escalated in the close quarters and threaten the trip. This is one of Spike’s best, rife with political and historical overtones that provide a window on how the historical subjugation of black men has impacted their lives and relationships to this day. It’s also one of the few films Lee directed that he didn’t write – the writer on this is writer/director Reggie Rock Bythewood, who wrote the HBO film “Dancing in September.”
“Crooklyn” may be Lee’s most criminally underrated movie. It’s a rarity in Hollywood – a story told strictly from the point of view of a young black girl growing up in Brooklyn. Troy Carmichael is being raised with her parents and four brothers and learning about the world around her. When she’s sent down South, she enjoys the change in scenery at first but then yearns to go home. Unfortunately, there’s bad news from Brooklyn as her mother is taken ill. “Crooklyn” shows a young woman maturing through a family tragedy and here Lee uses a sensitive touch not generally seen in his other films. “Crooklyn” is definitely worth a Netflix rental.
SHE HATE ME (2004)
Truth be told, the movie does too much. But it’s ambitious and that makes it one of Lee’s most compelling films, if not the most straightforward one. Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie, who went on the greater fame by starring in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Hurt Locker”) plays a technology executive who loses his job and therefore his lifestyle. To make ends meet, he becomes a sperm donor for lesbian couples after his ex-girlfriend Kerry Washington asks for help impregnating her and her girlfriend. The movie veers off into social commentary by recreating details from the Watergate investigation and yes, it’s a stretch how all this comes together. But still and all, it deserves praise for its scope and its sweeping statements on sex, finance, relationships and history.
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a television executive told by his racist boss to come up with some hotter programming. In order to get fired, Delacroix conceives of a modern day minstrel show that to his astonishment becomes a hit. Jada Pinkett plays his assistant Sloane and Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover are the two homeless men who become the stars of “Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show.” This is similar material to what was covered in the HBO movie “Dancing In September” released the same year, but Lee’s version got more criticism. “Bamboozled” is at times heavy-handed, but especially in these days of reality TV and buffoonish black stereotypes it just proves that Lee’s work is truly incisive when it comes to themes of race in contemporary America.
THE 25th HOUR (2002)
This is one of the only Spike Lee films not centered on an African-American lead character and another not written by Lee. David Benioff, the author of the book of the same title, was the screenwriter. Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) is enjoying his last 24 hours of freedom before he heads to jail on drug charges. During the time he catches up with old friends and spends time with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). The film was conceived before the 9/11 tragedy so Lee includes it in the movie – a smart move as it increases the overall dramatic intensity of the film. This is truly one of Lee’s greatest films and one that deserves even more viewers.