4 Spike Lee movies to stream before you see BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s subversive KKK comedy BlacKkKlansman hits theaters this weekend, and early reviews have been very positive on the director’s newest film. For a primer on Lee’s style before you hit the theater, check out these four Spike Lee Joints streaming online now.

1. She’s Gotta Have It

Where to stream: Netflix

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She’s Gotta Have It tells the story of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the three men she is dating (along with the one woman pursuing her as well). Each suitor represents a different archetype of male fragility. Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is the smooth, polite, romantic hunk whose gentlemanly image conceals a pretty sinister form of misogyny. Greer (John Canada Terrell) wears his superiority complex on his bulging sleeve, caring more to his body than to Nola. Mars (Spike Lee) is the most endearing of the trio, but he’s emotionally immature. Opal (Raye Dowell), Nola’s lesbian friend, offers up an alternative to the foibles of these men, but nothing much more substantive than simply another option.

Lee is at the top of his game with She’s Gotta Have It, formally. It’s a gorgeous, Woody Allen-esque black-and-white picture, with the exception of one elegant dance sequence in color. The film is opposed to any formal plot structure, and scenes are often broken up by characters delivering monologues directly to the camera.

She’s Gotta Have It is ultimately a story about female autonomy and male fragility, making it one of Lee’s most relevant works despite being released more than 30 years ago. Netflix certainly seems to think so, having greenlit a TV adaptation last year. Many of Lee’s later works have strived to be socially relevant, but are also wildly over-the-top; check out She’s Gotta Have It for one of his more reserved, and rewarding, films.

She’s Gotta Have It: 3.5 stars

2. Inside Man

Where to stream: Netflix

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Inside Man is an atypical movie for Lee, an action blockbuster about a tense bank heist turned hostage situation. Denzel Washington plays a police detective working to end the hostage situation; Jodie Foster plays a mysterious power broker involved in ending the heist at the request of a wealthy man named Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer); and Clive Owen plays the robber at the center of it all.

Inside Man is a tight film with excellent performances all around. It also happens to have one of the most gleefully simple, yet unanticipated, endings to an action film I’ve ever seen.

Inside Man: 4 stars

3. 4 Little Girls

Where to stream: Amazon Prime, HBO Go

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Lee takes a break from fiction with this delicate documentary about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls. As far as documentaries go, 4 Little Girls is pretty standard fare: talking head interviews interspersed by old black-and-white photos grazing across the screen. But substantively, the film still makes an impact.

4 Little Girls is subtle in its ingenuity. Lee makes a concerted effort to blend the personal impact of the bombing on the victims’ families with a meditation on the power structure that allowed such an act of violence to occur, and how the bombing catalyzed the movement to push for the black citizens' right to vote. The film adds up to something more powerful than any one of those focal points would have been alone.

Also: 4 Little Girls is notable for a wild interview with George C. Wallace, who desperately tries to position himself as a champion for black folks by citing his (very uncomfortable) black friend in the room. Very interesting.

4 Little Girls: 3 stars

4. Chi-Raq

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

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Chi-Raq is quintessential Spike Lee, a drama-comedy about race and power that takes formal risks aplenty. It doesn’t always work, but it is definitely a film full of choices that few other directors would even think to consider.

The film takes an ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, and transplants it into the black, violence-addled neighborhoods of Chicago. Two warring gangs in the city are trapped in a cycle of senseless killing, and in order to put a stop to it, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) organizes all the women to stop having sex with the men until they put down their weapons.

The transplantation is not just in terms of plot: most of the dialogue in Chi-Raq is delivered in verse. Lee’s script is full of verve and wit, and he’s clearly having fun modernizing the language of the Greek play. It’s also a visually vibrant film, and filled with broadly comic (and sometimes emotionally resonant) performances.

To say that Chi-Raq is quintessential Spike Lee is not necessarily to say that it is a good film. It has many moments that work; it has many that completely miss (the last 15 minutes, in my mind, get pretty messy). I’m not sure that I agree with whatever ideas Lee is presenting here about how to stop gang violence, or whose responsibility it is to do so. But however half-baked Chi-Raq feels at times, it’s a unique experience that showcases the subversive streak that makes me so excited to see BlacKkKlansman this weekend.

Chi-Raq: 2.5 stars