Spike Lee’s remake of the Park Chan-wook classic Oldboy hits theatres today. The decision to remake Old Boy has not been without controversy, but controversy is something Lee has courted his entire career. Now reviews are still coming in, but they are for the most part far from generous. As of writing this, the film has a mere 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. The original Korean film has a rating of 80%. Quite the discrepancy.
Nevertheless, Lee is responsible for some of the greatest social comedies and gritty, heart-wrenching dramas of the last 50 years and should be praised for his contributions to cinema.
Here are then, my choices, for Spike Lee’s five greatest films:
5) She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee’s first feature film remains one of the true classic American independent films. Shot in black and white, She’s Gotta Have It is a study in gender politics within the African American population of Brooklyn in the mid-80s. Lola Darling wants what the stereotypical man wants: to not be tied down by one person; to have multiple sex partners; and personal freedom above all else. It is this struggle for freedom of identity which permeates the film. It also gave birth to one of Spike Lee’s most famous characters, Mars Blackmon and his famous “Please baby, please baby, baby, baby, please!”
4) Jungle Fever (1991)
Jungle Fever was one of Spike Lee’s first real mainstream films. Don’t misread that. It was still rife with social commentary. The plot does revolve around mixed-race relationships, still taboo in much of America today, let alone 1991. But man, did this film ever put together one hell of a cast. Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra star, but the supporting cast included Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Anthony Quinn, and a young Halle Berry.
3) Inside Man (2006)
In this list, Inside Man probably has the least Spike Lee feel to it. It is at face value a very standard caper film about a bank heist where the criminals seem to always be one step ahead of the police outside. The cast is once again at full blockbuster mode with Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor all delivering stand-out performances. What separates Inside Man from other bank heist films, however, is the level of social commentary and moral outrage Lee inserts into the film. The themes of wealth vs. poverty, racism, violence in pop-culture and the nature of good and evil are all interwoven throughout the script, using the bank heist as a medium for discussion.
2) Malcolm X (1992)
It is strange to think, but Malcolm X was originally set to be directed by Canadian (WHITE) director Norman Jewison. Jewison had already directed civil rights film In The Heat of the Night starring Sidney Portier, but after a large public outcry, the studio concluded that it needed a black director for the film. Lee had considered a Malcolm X bio-pic based on Malcolm X’s biography a dream project, something he had desired to make for quite a while. The controversy grew when Lee issued that he would only grant interviews to black journalists. In the end, however, despite its controversial beginnings, Malcolm X would go on to be one of Lee’s most critically acclaimed films, garnering a Oscar nomination for star Denzel Washington in the process.
1) Do the Right Thing (1989)
Hands down Lee’s most pointed look at race relations in Brooklyn, a neighbourhood that we would come to know so well through his eyes in later pictures, Do the Right Thing uses its central character Mookie (played by Lee), a pizza boy for an Italian neighbourhood pizza shop, as the medium through which we meet some of Lee’s most well-articulated characters. In what starts as a tiff between the pizza shop owner Sal (Danny Aiello) and neighbourhood resident Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) over the absence of black celebrities on the pizza shop’s wall of fame, Do the Right Thing simmers with racial tension over the course of one of Brooklyn’s hottest summers, culminating in a dramatic confrontation between neighbourhood residents. Injected with Lee’s ever so cool style of camera work, Do the Right Thing still remains Lee’s best picture to date.