Da 5 Bloods arrived on Netflix on June 12 and within one week, it's already getting early Oscar buzz. The 24th feature film from Spike Lee is a Vietnam war drama, focusing on Black veterans. It's also the first of his feature films to be released on Netflix. After watching it, you'll likely find yourself craving more from the genius director. Here are some of the best Spike Lee movies to stream for those who just getting into his work.
Lee began his career in 1983 with the student film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. He went on to create She's Gotta Have It, a film that helped him make a name for himself in 1986. Over the next 35 years, Lee has made 24 feature films and five documentaries, plus a handful of shorts and music videos. In the pantheon of Black, Lee is considered a trailblazer. Most recently, he received his first Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations in 2019 and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.
With his next major release, American Utopia, coming to HBO next year, let's run down the nine best movies in Lee's filmography. Prepare to embark on one of the greatest film journeys of all time.
1. 'Do the Right Thing'
The film that put Lee on the map, Do The Right Thing, is about a riot in an NYC neighborhood over a pizza parlor that only showcases white actors on the walls. This 1989 Brooklyn-set film started the careers of Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, and Rosie Perez. It's considered one of his greatest masterpieces, even if the Oscars failed to reward him for it. (Instead, the award went to Driving Miss Daisy.)
2. '4 Little Girls'
Lee is known for his storytelling, but his documentaries are also standouts. This deep dive into the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls is one of Lee's most decorated films after BlacKkKlansman.
BlacKkKlansman is the movie that finally won Lee a competitive Oscar, four years after the Academy gave him an honorary one for failing to recognize two decades of work. Starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, the film is a fictionalized version of the true story of a Black police officer who went undercover with the Klan in the 1970s.
4. 'Malcolm X'
In 1992, Lee directed Denzel Washington in a star turn in a definitive look at Malcolm X. By this time, Lee was a major artist in the Black film world, and there are a ton of cameos in this, including Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and President Nelson Mandela. It's the second of four films where Washington acted as Lee's muse, the others being 1990's Mo' Better Blues, 1998's He Got Game, and 2006's Inside Man.
5. 'When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts'
Another of Lee's award-winning documentaries, this deep dive goes into the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Lee emphasizes the way Black residents were left behind to drown and suffer in New Orleans, creating a searing indictment of America and a reminder that Black Lives Matter in all situations.
6. 'She's Gotta Have It'
This should be considered a double-entry since Lee has revisited the material from his first feature film from 1986 and turned it into a Netflix series. The original film is a romantic comedy, starring Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling juggles three suitors: the polite Jamie, the self-obsessed Greer, and the motor-mouthed Mars. The TV series, which ran two seasons, is the same plot, just updated for the 21st century with DeWanda Wise as Nola and Anthony Ramos as Mars.
7. 'Get on the Bus'
Just before moving into documentaries with 1997's 4 Little Girls, Lee dipped his toe in it with the faux-documentary Get On The Bus. Based on the 1996 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. organized by Louis Farrakhan, the story follows 15 men, all virtual strangers, and their bus ride across the country to participate. Though the story is fictionalized, the film was praised for hitting the right notes in capturing the tone of this extraordinary event.
8. '25th Hour'
25th Hour is an outlier in the Lee filmography. It is one of the few films that he didn't write, and one of the few that stars a mainly white cast. Instead, the film was written by David Benioff (Game of Thrones) from his own novel of the same name and stars Edward Norton during his career peak. But the themes are very in Lee's wheelhouse, telling the story of "Monty" Brogan (Norton) and the last 24 hours he has on the outside before heading to start a seven-year prison sentence.
The closest thing to an autobiographical film Lee has ever made, Crooklyn holds the distinction of being his only PG-13 film outside of the Malcolm X biopic. It's is also the most family-oriented and touching drama of his oeuvre. Set in Brooklyn in 1973, the film focuses on the Carmichael family. Alfre Woodard plays dying matriarch Carolyn, with Zelda Harris as her daughter Troy, who takes charge in the wake of her passing. Lee famously co-wrote the script with two of his siblings, to gain perspective on what their mother's passing was like for the whole family.