Spike Lee. The venerable director and sometimes controversial figure is a consummate creative who’s work is a nuanced look at the Black experience in America. But his work is much more than just a critique and magnifying glass to daily life and culture; he is a director who can bring out the best in his actors. Whether it is a satirical look at Black greek life and the impact of colorism within the Black community (“School Daze”) or an intricate bank heist with a couple of twists and turns (“Inside Man”), Spike Lee’s films are filmmaking at its best.
Oftentimes using actors over and over again (Denzel Washington, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Joie Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Wesley Snipes, Ossie Davis, etc.), Lee is able to build rapport and bring out the subtleties in his characters because his actors trust him. With so many cultural classics under his belt, there are a plethora of award-worthy performances that could round out this top 10. So in honor of his latest feature “Da 5 Bloods” being released on Netflix this week, here are our top 10 award-worthy performances in Spike Lee’s films.
Honorable Mentions: Danny Aiello “Do the Right Thing,” Andre Braugher “Get On the Bus,” John David Washington “BlacKkKlansman,” Tisha Campbell-Martin “School Daze,” Adrien Brody “Summer of Sam,” Edward Norton “25th Hour” and Theresa Randle “Girl 6.”
10. Giancarlo Esposito in “School Daze” (1988)
As Julian “Big Brother Almighty” in “School Daze,” Esposito shined as the DP fraternity brother leading the hazing process of their new initiates. As the pretty-boy, man about campus he was self-absorbed and had let his power go to his head. It seemed like Esposito was made for this role and it was all the more rewarding when his character has his “come to Jesus” moment.
9. Angela Bassett in “Malcolm X” (1992)
Playing the wife of legendary civil rights figure Malcolm X, Bassett’s portrayal of Betty Shabazz was heartfelt, strong and emotional. Angela Bassett always brings a powerful femininity to all of her roles and this one was no different. She is not a woman who fades into the background.
8. Bill Nunn in “Do The Right Thing” (1989)
One of Spike Lee’s most iconic and memorable characters, Radio Raheem is a character that is timely and still resonates today. And Bill Nunn so embodied that character, from his walk to the cadence in his speech. Nunn brought such strength, passion and a subtle vulnerability to his character. From his first appearance on the screen, you felt his impact–and who can forget “the story of love and hate?”
7. Anthony Mackie in “She Hate Me” (2004)
As Jack Armstrong, a young black professional fired from his job turns to impregnating wealthy lesbians to pay the bills, Mackie was cock-sure yet vulnerable in this performance. He shines in a cast of a mainly beautiful, strong and memorable women. Mackie walks a fine line between vulnerability and hyper-masculinity and learns a life lesson along the way.
6. Ossie Davis in “Do the Right Thing” (1989)
It’s hard to pick just one Spike Lee-directed Ossie Davis performance (and to call out just one from the many moving and life changing performances in “Do the Right Thing”), but as the alcoholic Da Mayor, Davis’ presence is felt throughout and long after he leaves the scene and the film is over. From the tenor of his voice to the way he carries himself and delivers his lines, every word is felt in this authentic portrayal.
5. Topher Grace in “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)
Playing the racist Klan leader David Duke, Grace’s performance is subtle yet he still envelopes the role. From his mannerisms to the cadence of his speech, Topher Grace nails this performance in a great film filled with stellar performances.
4. Omar Benson Miller in “Miracle at St. Anna” (2008)
As the simple-minded, yet highly spiritual Private First Class Sam Train, Benson Miller’s portrayal of a Black soldier trapped in an Italian village during WWII and struggling to protect a young Italian boy could’ve come across as over-the-top — almost unbelievable — but it didn’t. He played the role of protector and the “chocolate giant” with aplomb and sincerity. Moving and heartfelt, this is Omar Benson Miller at his best.
3. Zelda Harris in “Crooklyn” (1994)
Every few years or so, a young actor comes along and so embodies a role that they stand out even among the veteran actors around them. Zelda Harris in “Crooklyn” was once such child actor. From the sass to the vulnerability, Harris sparkles in Lee’s vibrant semi-autobiographical portrait of a family living in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Harris’s presence on the screen lights up any scene she’s in and takes it the next level because of the ease in her authenticity.
2. Anthony Ramos in “She’s Gotta Have It” (2017-2019)
Anthony Ramos effortlessly stepped into the role of Mars Blackmon, originally played by Spike Lee himself in the film version, in this vibrant, modernized series remake of the 1986 classic. Ramos’s youth, enthusiasm, and uniqueness seem tailored for this role. He makes it look easy.
1. Denzel Washington in any Spike Lee joint
What is it about Denzel Washington and Spike Lee collaborating? From “Mo’ Better Blues” to “Malcolm X” to “Inside Man” to “He Got Game,” Lee continuously brings out award-worthy performances from Washington. From suave, understated cool to brash and revolutionary, strength and vulnerability, Denzel Washington excels under Spike Lee’s direction.
Which Spike Lee directed performances do you think are award-worthy? Drop a line in the comments below.
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