Spike Lee is a special director. His films (known as “joints”) generally explore issues of class and race relations, with a focus on the experiences of ordinary people. They are known for their energetic camera work, especially Lee’s signature dolly shots, alongside eclectic soundtracks. His best movies, like Do the right thing and Malcolm Xare among the most acclaimed films ever made.
Over the years, Lee has developed many of the movies that inspired him. They feature several obscure gems, as well as movies that may have been well-reviewed at release, but aren’t as well remembered now. Like Lee’s own work, many of these stories follow the working class and their struggles with the social forces that shape and limit them. Fans of Lee are sure to find something to enjoy among these selections.
‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1991)
Set in the early 20th century, this film follows a family living on Saint Helena, a small island off the coast of Georgia. Most of the people on the island are descendants of slaves from different parts of Africa, creating a unique language and culture. But travel between Saint Helena and the mainland is increasing. People are bringing back stories of new ways of living and a new faith that conflicts with the islanders’ faith.
Daughters of the Dustis a poetic film that explores the three generations living on the island, and the tension between tradition and modern ways of life. It was praised upon release, mainly for its beautiful cinematography, but many viewers may not have seen it yet. It’s worth it, just for the pictures, that inspired the music videos in front of Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade.
‘Stranger than Paradise’ (1984)
Director Jim Jarmusch is perhaps best known today for movies like Only lovers alive and underestimated the criminal The dead don’t diebut one of his most impressive films is the black and white Stranger than paradise. It is a meandering story about a young man’s visit to his Hungarian cousin.
Stranger than paradise broke many film conventions and caused a buzz in the independent scene in the 1980s. It firmly established Jarmusch as an arthouse talent. The film has been acclaimed in the decades since, with fans including critic Pauline Kael and Akira Kurosawa. But despite its critical eye, it remains a niche film that deserves more viewers. Fans of Jarmusch’s more recent films will certainly find it an interesting window into the director’s development.
‘Slayer of Sheep’ (1978)
Killer of sheep explores life in an African-American working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1970s. Director Charles Burnett made the film as part of his master’s degree at UCLA. Due to difficulties in securing the rights to the music used in the film, Killer of Sheep never went into wide release. For decades it was considered a lost classic.
The film was eventually restored and re-released in 2007, to positive reviews. Critics have compared it to the neo-realistic early films of Fellini and the intimate dramas of Satyajit Ray. The resonant portrayal of inner city life associated with many artists, not least Spike Lee but also rapper Moss for surewho used a frame from the movie as a cover from his 2009 album the ecstatic.
‘The Seduction of Mimi’ (1972)
Mimic’s seduction is a farce of the Italian director Lina Wertmullerwho passed away in 2021. It was the first of Wertmüller’s many collaborations with actor Giancarlo Gianninithe most famous creature Seven beauties. Here Giannini plays a manual worker who is mistreated by his bosses, by politicians, by the mafia, by his lovers. The film excites life in Italy in the decades after World War II, especially the over-the-top (and increasingly outdated) machismo.
Mimic’s seduction also denounces politics in a fairly impartial way. The capitalist characters and the communists are equally terrible. With his screwball sensibility and keen take on class, it’s easy to see why Spike Lee is a fan.
‘Dirty Beautiful Things’ (2002)
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in this drama about immigrants living in the UK. He plays a doctor from West Africa who fled his homeland after being falsely accused of murder. He earns a living in London by driving a taxi and working in a hotel. There he befriends a Turkish migrant named Senay (Audrey Tautou), with its own problems.
Dirty beautiful things is a smart social thriller that explores the immigrant experience. Director Stephen Frears handles the material carefully and professionally. He shot the film in a documentary style, which gives it an authenticity that adds to its impact.
‘Blue Collar’ (1978)
Blue collar is the debut film of an experienced director Paul Schrader. the stars Richard Pryoro, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as auto workers in Michigan. Short of money, the trio breaks into the safe in the office of their own union. However, they find it nearly empty — except for a ledger that appears to hold evidence of the union’s illegal activities.
The film is worth it for the lead actors’ performances alone, all of which are excellent (young Keitel is always a party). But Blue collar has also aged well as an exploration of big business and great labor, as well as the toxic effects of corruption. It will appeal to fans of more recent films, such asdark waters or the Hulu seriesDopessick.
‘Sugar Cane Alley’ (1983)
sugar cane alley follows an orphan, Jose (Garry Cadenat), from a poor, rural part of the French-speaking island of Martinique in the 1930s. He and his friends live in a collection of shacks near the sugar cane fields, where most of the adults work. A large part of the film follows the children in this harsh environment. Despite the circumstances, they play and explore and embrace life. Their innocence shields them from reality.
Jose is a smart boy and dreams of an education. Chasing his dream is central to the story as he prepares for an exam that could change his life. This may be a somewhat stale premise, but director Euzhan Palcy portrays Joses’ struggle with nuance. Palcy would direct several major American projects, including the apartheid drama A dry white seasonstarring Donald Sutherland and Marlon Brando.
‘Black Rain’ (1989)
Shohei Imamura was an influential Japanese director and a leading figure in the Japanese New Wave. His movies, like Intentions of murder and Revenge is minimaleoften examine the psychology behind violence. black rain, one of his later projects, takes a slightly different approach, focusing on victims rather than perpetrators. It tells the story of a family of survivors in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The film looks at people’s reactions to the bombing and how they feel about it. Some characters almost blame themselves for what happened, while others live in fear of getting radiation sickness, or ashamed that they already have it. black rain is a great companion piece for John Hersey‘s Hiroshimadescribing the bombing and the days immediately after. black rain takes a longer look and shows the effects of that day many years later.
‘Dead End’ (1937)
Dead end follows a gang of churchgoers in New York who cause trouble and commit petty crimes. Things suddenly escalate after the guys attack and rob a rich kid. The child’s father gets involved, leading to a scuffle. In the melee, one of the guys, Tommy (Billy Halop), fatally stabs the man. Tommy flees, the police give chase.
The film, based on a play, is a portrait of New York’s East River slums during the Great Depression. Director William Wyler would go to much greater heights with classics like Ben-Hurobut Dead end remains a fascinating snapshot of his moment in time. Some viewers may also enjoy it because of the great pre-stardom performance of a young one Humphrey Bogart.
Honorable Mention: ‘Thief’ (1981)
Calling is difficult Thief underestimated, as it was critically acclaimed upon release. Yet it is often overshadowed by director Michael Mann‘s more famous projects. Thief was his feature film debut, but it feels like it was made by a skilled craftsman. James Caan shines like a vault cracker trying to go straight, and Tuesday read plays his wife Jessie.
Thief is an unusually clever crime film, with a moody score, whiplash montage and, of course, a great, multi-dimensional performance from Caan. Spike Lee Mentioned Thief as one of the films he believes all young filmmakers should see. In light of Caan’s recent passing, now is a great time to check out (or revisit) this 80s gem.
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