Years active: 1977-present
Notable films: If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, Pass Over, BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee’s stock has fallen and risen countless times in the three decades since Do The Right Thing made every Spike Lee joint a must-see event regardless if it’s deemed a success or a failure. In the last five years alone, he’s misfired with 2015’s Chi-Raq, a divisive all-star satire that addressed Chicago gang violence in the context of a sex comedy, and then came back better than ever with 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. The true story of Ron Stallworth, a police officer who infiltrated and exposed a Colorado chapter of the KKK in the late ‘70s, inspired Spike Lee’s most commercially successful film since 2006’s Inside Man, and his best since 2002’s 25th Hour. It also earned him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and made a movie star out of John David Washington, the son of longtime Lee collaborator Denzel Washington.
In the past decade alone, Spike Lee has kept his plate full with a diverse array of projects including a rollicking 2013 remake of the classic South Korean action movie Oldboy, his first horror film (2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), documentaries about Michael Jackson and post-Katrina New Orleans, and two seasons of a Netflix reboot of his 1986 breakthrough She’s Gotta Have It. But perhaps his best recent project that flew under the radar was Pass Over. A stage play by playwright Antoinette Nwandu that creatively riffs on Waiting For Godot, captured with kinetic movement by Lee’s cameras, which occasionally linger on faces in the audience, Pass Over was released with little fanfare in 2018. But as much as any of his recent work, it crystallizes Spike Lee’s gifts for treating dialogue like music and seeing modern America as the sad and hysterical tragicomedy that it is. —Al Shipley