Spike Lee's latest, Inside Man, hits theaters this weekend. But there's more to Lee—who, ever since he exploded onto the scene in 1989 with Do the Right Thing, has remained a fascinating filmmaker... even if all of his films aren't always so fascinating:
• Do the Right Thing (1989)—Two common sights outside of movie theaters in the summer of '89: People walking out of Batman and immediately buying another ticket, and folks stumbling out of this, Spike Lee's third feature, looking like they'd been smacked by a very large brick. The hype? Believe it.
• Jungle Fever (1991)—In which the wheels begin to come off, and Lee's penchant for narrative overstuffing becomes harder to defend. There are at least two compelling, competing storylines here, but both are torpedoed by the director's fondness for histrionics and his continuing depiction of Italians as a, shall we say, less than enlightened people. Still, there's some great stuff, especially when Samuel L. Jackson's demonic popeyes are given free reign.
• Malcolm X (1992)—When Denzel became Denzel. Lee came late to this, his largest project, after loudly proclaiming that the subject was unfit for a previously attached white director. Whatever the prickly backstory, this remains one of the few biopics with a pulse, particularly in the vibrant, zoot-suited first half.
• 4 Little Girls (1997)—Lee's first feature documentary, detailing the aftermath of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, is possibly his most focused, stinging work. Brilliant.
• The 25th Hour (2002)—The tendency to cram five movies into one still applies (and 10 demerits for frequent collaborator Terence Blanchard's awful, cranked-to-11 musical score), but set against the post-9/11 backdrop, Lee's scattershot, easily distracted approach makes perfect sense for once. No other great director can be so honestly exasperating. And exasperatingly honest.