Acclaimed director Spike Lee has been one of America’s most distinct voices in cinema since the 1980s. From bonafide classics of yesteryear like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, to his newest films BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s directorial touch is always recognizable in any film he makes.
This is true not only of his fictional narrative features, but of his many documentaries as well. Throughout his career, Lee has gone back and forth from narrative to documentary projects, achieving great success in both realms. From sports to music to politics, here are Spike Lee’s documentary films, ranked according to IMDb.
- 1 10 Jim Brown: All American – 5.4
- 2 9 Passing Strange – 6.1
- 3 8 Kobe Doin’ Work – 6.5
- 4 7 The Original Kings Of Comedy – 6.9
- 5 6 A Huey P. Newton Story – 7.0
- 6 5 If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise – 7.2
- 7 4 Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall – 7.4
- 8 3 4 Little Girls – 7.8
- 9 2 Bad 25 – 7.9
- 10 1 When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts – 8.5
10 Jim Brown: All American – 5.4
Movie buffs know Jim Brown as a character actor in films like The Running Man and Any Given Sunday, while sports fans know him as a Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns. Spike Lee cast Brown in two of his films, He Got Game and She Hate Me, and directed this 140 minute HBO documentary on his life, career, and political activism.
The film received mixed reviews, as some critics thought it too simplistic and others too vague, but fans of Jim Brown will love every minute of this nearly two-and-a-half-hour cinematic tribute.
9 Passing Strange – 6.1
Passing Strange is a musical stage production that originated at the Sundance Theatre Lab and landed on Broadway in 2008. It’s a coming of age story about a bohemian Black man’s journey of self-discovery in Europe.
Spike Lee filmed the final three performances of its theatrical run, and released his film as a document of the play itself combined with backstage behind-the-scenes footage. The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and enjoyed a limited theatrical run in New York before being aired on PBS.
8 Kobe Doin’ Work – 6.5
Spike Lee is perhaps the most famous New York Knicks fan in world history, but he still found it in himself to direct this thrilling sports documentary about a day in the life of the late Kobe Bryant. Over the course of one day, Kobe agreed to wear a microphone before, during, and immediately after the Lakers’ playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, giving fans a unique insight into the mind of one of the game’s all-time greats.
Spike used 30 cameras to shoot the film, so even though it was all done in one day, he had loads of footage to choose from when editing together this exhilarating 84-minute doc which would eventually air on ESPN.
7 The Original Kings Of Comedy – 6.9
Stand-up comedians D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer star in The Original Kings of Comedy, which is part documentary and part concert film. Spike Lee filmed their performances in Charlotte, North Carolina over two nights, and intercut their stand-up material with backstage footage as well as their promotional appearances in which they plugged the shows.
The film was a hit, grossing $38 million, an impressive haul for a film of its genre. In March of 2020, Cedric the Entertainer hinted at the possibility of a reunion tour, but of course, the events of the year put those plans on hold.
6 A Huey P. Newton Story – 7.0
Spike Lee directs the filmed performance of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man-play about the life and legacy of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. The film received positive reviews, as Spike Lee both allows Smith’s writing and performance to shine while also combining the narrative with TV clips, archival photos, and musical interludes.
Making a filmed-play work as both a piece of theater and cinema is a very difficult balance to strike, but A Huey P. Newton Story does it flawlessly.
5 If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise – 7.2
This four-part HBO documentary is a follow-up to the 2006 post-Katrina New Orleans film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
Filmed five years after the Hurricane, Spike Lee documents the spirit of a city in recovery, with specific attention paid to the BP oil spill, as well as the 2010 Super Bowl championship won by the New Orleans Saints. Lee’s long-time composing partner Terence Blanchard provides the musical score, making If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise a quintessential Spike Lee film in that it so clearly demonstrates his passion for politics, Black history and culture, sports, and music.
4 Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall – 7.4
This second of two Michael Jackson documentaries by Spike Lee tells the story of Jackson’s early life and career, through the release of 1979’s Off the Wall album. It premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and aired on Showtime in February of that year.
Critics admired the admiration on display for Jackson’s music. Spike Lee is nothing if not passionate, and his enthusiasm for his subjects often comes through in his art. This film is no exception – it plays like a joyous, rousing celebration of Jackson’s early music.
3 4 Little Girls – 7.8
The horrific white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is the subject of Spike Lee’s 1997 HBO documentary, 4 Little Girls. Four young Black girls were murdered in the bombing, and this film is both a touching eulogy to them as well as an incisive commentary on the political circumstances surrounding the event.
In 2017, 4 Little Girls was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry due to its cultural and historical significance. It boasts a perfect 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a masterpiece.
2 Bad 25 – 7.9
Released in coordination with a special 25th Anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s Bad album, this 2012 documentary compiles footage of the album’s recording sessions with interviews of Jackson’s peers and collaborators.
Spike Lee had directed the music video for Jackson’s 1995 song “They Don’t Care About Us,” and his love of Jackson’s music and appreciation for his talent is evident throughout this doc.
1 When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts – 8.5
Filmed in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke is an essential document of American history. The film oozes with righteous anger at the government’s inadequate response to the disaster, but also boasts the boisterous, joyful energy of New Orleans as a uniquely American place.
It’s over four hours long, split into four episodes which aired on HBO in 2006. Audiences are sure to run the full emotional gamut over the course of this viewing. It’s as enriching a cinematic experience as Spike Lee has ever put to film.
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