Spike Lee’s new film Da 5 Bloods, out Friday on Netflix, is already primed to be one of those releases entering the world at the exact right time. As protests against police brutality and systemic racism erupt worldwide, a film following a group of Black Vietnam veterans reckoning with another one of America’s great moral failings could resonate widely. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than just that — Lee’s first film since 2018’s BlacKkKlansman also comes with one of his highest budgets to date, doubling as a treasure hunt adventure of sorts. Starring Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman, and Paul Walter Hauser, it’s already being hailed as one of Lee’s best recent movies. To prepare for Da 5 Bloods’ premiere, here are five Spike Lee films to watch from one of America’s most significant and risky filmmakers.
Do the Right Thing (rent on Amazon)
Since the early days of the George Floyd protests, there’s been a tendency to nitpick about the correct and most effective methods: violence and looting, or peaceful and obedient. Lee’s film, which remains one of the defining documents about racism in cinema more than 20 years later, evades the easy answers about how to respond to injustice at every turn. Many of the same people clutching their pearls about looting in 2020 likely were afraid Do the Right Thing would inspire riots that never came. The cycle repeats, the debate over property and people endures, and Lee’s opus remains the best document of how fissures in a community just compound indefinitely, until something bursts.
Malcolm X (Netflix)
The longest Spike Lee joint is also one of his most ambitious, spanning more than three hours and four decades. One of the more controversial biopics of its time, Malcolm X gave Denzel Washington one of his best roles to date, and was absolutely unsparing in the portrayal of its subject without regard for the comfort of white audiences. As its budget and scope expanded to something far exceeding the studio’s expectations, a number of prominent Black entertainers donated to Lee so he could realize his full vision. The finished product more than validates his demands.
Inside Man (Netflix)
Is it any coincidence that Inside Man and The Departed came out in the same year? Both crackling, accessible, and fun thrillers from two of America’s greatest filmmakers. Although Martin Scorsese finally won his long-earned Oscar that year, it would take Lee another 12 years to collect his first bit of hardware. Make no mistake: Washington and Clive Owen’s labyrinth of cat-and-mouse gameplay is nearly The Departed’s equal, and to this day remains one of the tensest, enduring films in Lee’s career.
BlacKkKlansman (Hulu, HBO Max)
After some career-defining work with Denzel Washington, Lee finally helmed a showcase for his son. John David Washington, coming to theaters this summer (maybe?) in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, received his first starring role as Ron Stallworth. While some significant creative liberties were taken in the story of Stallworth and his collaborators (Adam Driver’s character — not exactly real,) the Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated and exposed the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, it’s still a discomforting, tightly woven spectacle. It’s one of those films that bends and distorts history in such a way that you have no choice but to succumb and roll with the punches. The Academy agreed, awarding Lee his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
He Got Game (Hulu)
Washington and Lee’s third collaboration, He Got Game was an immediate entry into the great sports movies of all time — along with one of the great athlete performances in a movie, with Ray Allen’s turn as Jesus Shuttleworth. Like any of Lee’s best, it defies easy categorization and is still brimming with ideas more than 20 years later. The film follows Washington’s Jake Shuttleworth, father to the top high school basketball prospect in the country who’s in prison for killing his wife. He’s released on parole for a week with two intertwined goals: getting his son to play for the governor’s alma mater, to help secure a shortened prison sentence.