“It comes down to this: black people were stripped of our identities when we were brought here, and it’s been a quest since then to define who we are.”
Born as Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta to a culturally enriched household, Spike Lee was once quoted saying, “We grew up in a very creative environment and were exposed to the arts at a very young age, so it’s not a surprise that all of us are in some form of the arts.” Lee was a student at the historically black college Morehouse College from where he derived inspiration for his later film School Daze. He was also a student of Tisch School of Arts before he embarked on his filmmaking journey.
A pioneer in the independent filmmaking industry, Lee’s feature film She’s Gotta Have It made his affiliations clear. He was to be a revolutionary director who would portray deep-seated and monumental issues such as racism, colourism, controversial socio-political issues and, more unflinchingly, with humour and wit to make it more accessible and resonant with the audience. His films started forging a new path for representing African-American people in cinema where they were no longer just “pimps and whores, but [as] intelligent, upscale urbanites.”
However, Lee has refuted the claims by stating how much the problem has been internalised and propagated by Hollywood. “Any film I do is not going to change the way black women have been portrayed, or black people have been portrayed, in cinema since the days of D.W. Griffith,” he said.
Throughout his career, Lee has faced many controversies but, in doing so, has always accepted challenges with a broad smile. From being labelled an anti-semite to receiving flak when he stepped into directorial shoes for the Denzel Washington-starred Malcolm X, Lee has had his fair share of criticism.
However, he has been hailed by critics to be a revolutionary in terms of depicting the crisis of identity that lies in the blacks as well as the systemic oppression they face on a regular basis, besides portraying urban poverty and descent into crime. As he himself said, “I think it is very important that films make people look at what they’ve forgotten.” His films are usually referred to as “Spike Lee Joints”, and his trademark phrases “Ya Dig”, “By Any Means Necessary”, and “Sho Nuff” appear mandatorily at every closing credit.
While Netflix has a variety of Spike Lee films on offer, it is a shame that his best-made flick, Do the Right Thing, is not available for streaming. Nevertheless, on this extraordinary filmmaker’s 64th birthday, we pay him tribute by taking a look at some of his finest films that are streaming on Netflix.
The best Spike Lee films streaming on Netflix
9. She’s Gotta Have It -1986
The gorgeous Nora Darling does not believe in monogamous relationships and ends up dating three men; the narcissistic Greer Childs, polite Jamie Overstreet and the meek Mars Blackmon. The men meet up to compare notes on Nora, who is soon faced with the difficult decision of having to choose between them.
Spike Lee’s iconic independent debut feature is revolutionary; it depicts the struggles of being an African-American woman in a typically white patriarchal society and the taboos associated with sexuality and polygamy. Lee later shot a reboot of this film as a Netflix series in 2017.
The fraught Thanksgiving dinner-from-hell scene, besides the liberating ending, is one of the highlights of the film. The film, whose low-budget setting and production became a source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, contains Lee’s brazen commentary on the racial stereotypes and breaking away from the oppressive patriarchal structure by using sexuality as a tool for liberation.
“It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.”
8. BlacKkKlansman – 2018
Spike Lee’s scorching commentary on racism via this period satire hits hard. Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, is determined to infiltrate and expose Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist hate group. He enlists the help of his experienced Jewish friend Philip “Flip” Zimmerman to blend in and investigate undercover, with a subsequent effort to quash and impending racist attack on the Black community. On this harrowing journey to defeat the extremists, Lee blends in absurdist humour within a narrative comprising horrors of racism to present a nuanced socio-political satire and an urgent wake-up call.
The film is more relevant than ever and provides a perfect dichotomy between the absurd and the horrifying. The racist expletives and profane language used by the members of hate groups are appalling. The film is bound to make the viewers’ hearts bleed for the innocent victims subject to the racist slaughter. Although Lee has been criticised for being a propagandist, his film paints the realistic and disturbing picture of racism and the dangers the extremist hate groups pose to the communities of colour, highlighting the growing concerns and urgently asking people to wake up and be more aware of their surrounding occurrences.
“ Black Power also means that we must unite. We must unite, and we must organize to form a base to fight racism.”
7. She Hate Me – 2004
Jack Armstrong is held accountable for his colleagues suicide and gets his assets frozen which makes living difficult. After he is asked by his now-lesbian ex-fiancee to impregnate her and her girlfriend, insemination becomes a way for Armstrong to make money. This becomes a full-fledged business and soon he impregnates the daughter of a mafioso which is used by his company to their political interest.
The film production, much like what happened to Armstrong in the film, garnered a lot of controversy with people in support of or against the topic. The title of the film, according to Lee, has been derived from Boris Karloff’s iconic dialogue in Bride of Frankenstein. Lee infused humour and comedy with drama and politics yet failed to catch the attention of critics owing to the society’s rigid responses to these plotlines. Although it did not make a huge mark at the box office, it won four black Reel Awards including best director for Lee and best breakthrough performance for Anthony Mackie’s brilliant portrayal of the controversial Jack.
“Survival makes people do things that they know in their heart is wrong. Survival makes people do things that they know in their heart is wrong.”
6. Inside Man (2002)
New York City Detective Keith Frazier is at loggerheads with a cunning mastermind behind dangerous heists, Dalton Russell and nearly outwits him during a hostage crisis. However, a mysterious woman named Madaline enters the play with sinister intent, and she has been entrusted by the bank’s founder Arthur Case to protect something from the clutches of the robbers during the heist. This film marked Denzel Washington’s fourth collaboration with Lee.
Washington derived inspiration from his Broadway experience of portraying Brutus to play the troubled Frazier who had numerous moving dialogues in the film. Amidst the ensemble cast comprising Jodie Foster, Clive Owen and Christopher Plummer among others, Washington’s performance stands out. Russell Gewirtz’s script abounds in brilliant dialogues and caught lee’s attention who, having read the script, “really wanted to do it”. Spike Lee’s take on the thriller genre is witty and refreshing, vigorous and crafty, exceeding all expectations with the ingenuity he brings to the overdone pulpy genre.
“Fact is, all lies, all evil deeds, they stink.”
5. School Daze (1988)
Derived from Spike Lee’s own experiences at Atlanta University as a Morehouse student, the film focuses on a politically conscious student Dap who, as a student of the historically black Mission College, aims to lead the students to rally as a united front, conscious of various social movements. However, the head of the fraternity Julian wants to maintain on-campus decorum and elitism. The film is a wake-up call as it deals with the subjugation occurring within the black community in terms of skin tone and hair texture.
Lee was very conscious while directing the film; he wanted to exude the most authentic reactions possible. Not only did he arrange for better accommodations for the wannabes but also meted out different treatment to them on-set. This led to rising tension which ultimately broke out into a fight that was not included in the script but was included in the film to add authenticity.
“Now I bet you n*****s do think y’all white. College don’t mean shit. Y’all n*****s, and you gonna be n*****s forever… just like us. N*****s.”
4. Rodney King (2017)
Spike Lee’s one-man show is run by the talented Roger Guenveur Smith who engages in the multiplicity of voices to present both sides of the story to the audience, leaving it on the latter to detect the injustice carried out against Rodney King. Based on true incidents, King was subject to police brutality which is made viral after it is caught in in video and Smith carefully takes King’s side and then opposes him to present an unbiased portrait.
Lee’s directorial venture into the saga of King’s life brings forth the ubiquitous problem in the United States, racism and the impending tensions between the whites and the people of colour. The anger, rage, confusion, terror and humiliation is palpable. The film forces the audience to take a look into their own ideals by presenting a harsh, hard-hitting and unflinching slice of truth. Smith’s brilliance is accentuated by Lee’s timeless direction in this film that highlights the denigration of the justice system and calls attention to the timeless issue surrounding racism and oppression.
“It’s happening right now… it’s just not on film, it’s not being recorded.”
3. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Reflective of the deep gashes and wounds left by the Vietnam war, the film follows the journey of war veterans who return to the country to try and find the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin” Norman Earl Holloway, as well as the gold bars they received as a payment from the Lahu people for aiding the Viet Cong. Chadwick Boseman plays the fallen squad leader who was fearless in his rage against the exploitation of Black soldiers by the US Army. The men romanticised the courage of Stormin, and are haunted by his untimely demise.
It is not the kind of film you expect as it has a shocking amount of greed and fear, “Verging on action-movie melodrama and farce”, yet ends on a hopeful and cathartic note with lee’s power-packed punch comprising an immediacy of the message and hard-hitting impact. Boseman is fantastic on-screen, adding to the caustic war-ridden horror that dominates the film. The poignancy of the film remains in it being one of Boseman’s last films which are also one of Lee’s most expensive and ambitious projects.
“We won’t let nobody use our rage against us. We control our rage.”
2. Get On the Bus (1996)
A group of fifteen disparate African Americans travel to Washington D.C. from Los Angeles in the wake of the Million Man March. This group includes Smooth who is on temporary probation and his father Evan Sr., a gay couple, a homophobic man, an aspiring filmmaker as well as an 80-year-old alcoholic among others. With their ensuing arguments due to difference of opinions, the connectedness lies in their race and builds a diverse discourse, answering the age-old question: What does it mean to be Black in the United States?
Spike Lee, with his supreme wit and intellect, dramatises the urgency of the various socio-political themes as well as shared racial experiences by often employing comedy to make it seem more convincing. The film packs a powerful punch due to the raw honesty it is enveloped in. Although the men begin the journey as strangers, their racial unity binds them together on basis of experiences; the eclectic ensemble discusses issues ranging from manhood, politics, religion as well as race while pushing forth Lee’s agenda of discussing the position of black people in America.
“Oh my God, a gay black republican. Now I’ve seen everything!”
1. Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington plays the enigmatic titular character in this eponymous biographical drama. Malcolm Little becomes Malcolm X when he realises that his surname ‘Little’ is representative of his ethnic identity that has been robbed of him by the whites. Malcolm encounters the horrors of racism at a very young age after his father’s brutal murder at the hands of white supremacists is declared as suicide. Over the years, Malcolm undergoes a series of transformation, realising the deep-seated problem, vowing to fight the racial discrimination prevalent in America, often turning to religion for peace and solace.
This was “a great American story”, according to producer Marvin Worth who tried to make this film for 25 years, “It reflects on our society in so many ways”. After Lee was roped in as the director, he wanted to put forward his vision of Malcolm which was initially met with flak and resistance as people were worried Lee would be “trashing” Malcolm’s larger than life image. Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X received high praise and the film was a huge success, becoming one of the greatest biographical drama flicks of all time, tracing a man’s spiritual and political journey as he struggles with his blackness in a white supremacist country.
“You are not an American. You are the victim of America!”