10 Best Performances In Spike Lee Movies, Ranked

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Spike Lee has helped launch the careers of many venerated actors and actresses, some of whom have delivered his movies’ best performances. Since his feature directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Lee has cultivated a loyal stable of frequent actors, including Denzel Washington, Delroy Lindo, and John Turturro, who regularly appear in the filmmaker’s “joints.” He brings out the best in his casts, as most of his actors have received critical praise and a few have even been recognized by the Academy Awards.

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With more than 40 features to his credit, Spike Lee doesn’t always hit a home run with his movies, but almost all of them feature great actors doing standout work. The best performances in Spike Lee’s movies can be found in a variety of dramas, comedies, biopics, and thrillers representing every decade of the filmmaker’s lengthy career. These performances also highlight Lee’s own skills in front of the camera as well as the familial talent of father and son movie stars.

Related: 10 Things You Never Knew About Spike Lee

10 Spike Lee In Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee as Mookie in Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee got his feet wet as an actor co-starring in his first two features, She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, but Do the Right Thing saw him take on the protagonist role of Mookie. For his first lead, Lee gave himself a character to play who was conflicted and difficult to sympathize with at times. In spite of Mookie’s shortcomings, though, he prevents his boss and co-workers from being attacked by an angry mob, and Lee’s facial expressions and body language during the scene really help sell the emotion. Interestingly, Lee has reprised the role in other works, showing what happened to Mookie after Do the Right Thing.

Related: Spike Lee’s First 10 Movies In Chronological Order

9 Clive Owen In Inside Man

Inside Man Clive Owen Opening Scene

While Inside Man stars frequent Spike Lee collaborator Denzel Washington and features the likes of Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in strong supporting roles, it is Clive Owen’s performance as the film’s bank-robbing antagonist, Dalton Russell, that stands out. Though Owen spends the majority of the film in disguise, his relentless monologues and bedtime-like voiceover narration help his character shine far beyond that of a standard movie villain. Moreover, his interactions with Washington are among the best ever committed to film as the theatrically-trained actors bounce off each other’s energy.

8 Wesley Snipes In Jungle Fever

Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever

Wesley Snipes is a versatile actor, yet he’s better known as an action star than for his dramatic roles. However, he offers one of his best performances in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever as Flipper Purify. His character is a successful architect who is forced to deal with the consequences of his selfish actions and their impact on others when he begins an extramarital affair with an employee. Snipes’s acting in the romantic drama proved to the industry that he could be a strong leading man with the right material, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this performance led to him securing his more famous roles down the line.

7 Edward Norton In 25th Hour

Edward Norton as Monty Brogan in 25th Hour

One of Spike Lee’s most underrated movies. 25th Hour stars Edward Norton as Monty Brogan, a former drug dealer, as he spends his last day as a free man before serving a prison sentence. Norton delivers a powerful and enthralling monologue early in the film that says a lot about the frustrations of New Yorkers after 9/11 and perfectly captures the broad feelings of anger and mistrust one would have during such a high-stress situation. This rant is also great because it ultimately becomes apparent that Monty is more upset at himself for going to prison than anything else, and Norton’s venomous delivery is what makes it a legendary moment.

Related: Edward Norton’s Best Movies, Ranked

6 Denzel Washington In He Got Game

Ray Allen and Denzel Washington in He Got Game

Another lesser-known movie in Spike Lee’s filmography, He Got Game stars Denzel Washington as the father of a top NBA prospect (played by pro basketball player Ray Allen). Washington is known for his convincing portrayals of lawful and just men, so it was a pleasant surprise when he took on the role of a convicted felon and deadbeat dad. Moreover, Washington spent many hours on the court working on his game in preparation for this film, and it shows as he convincingly plays one-on-one with Allen. In a career filled with powerful performances, Washington’s work in He Got Game isn’t appreciated enough for how much it displays the actor’s range.

5 Tracy Camilla Johns In She’s Gotta Have It

Spike Lee in She's Gotta Have It

Spike Lee’s feature directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, stars Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling, a graphic artist and sexually adventurous woman living in New York, and it’s one of the best comedies in his mostly serious filmography. It’s refreshing whenever an artist attempts to showcase romance and its complex nature from the perspective of a woman. In the case of She’s Gotta Have It, it’s even more unique because Black women and their sexuality are virtually never explored in mainstream Hollywood productions. Johns successfully portrays the frustrations associated with sexual freedom and expression as it relates to Black women, both in her acting and her narration.

4 Damon Wayans In Bamboozled

Damon Wayans as Pierre

Easily one of Spike Lee’s most underappreciated works, Bamboozled is a satire about the relationship between entertainment and its handling of different cultures, particularly African-American culture. Bamboozled stars Damon Wayans as hardworking CNS employee Pierre Delacroix and his vain attempts to get his white superiors to be more mindful of how they depict Black people in their shows. Delivering a devilishly fun performance as the overworked, underappreciated character, Wayans shines in Bamboozled as he masterfully handles the absurdity of the script in a way that only someone with a strong comedy background could.

3 Delroy Lindo In Da 5 Bloods

Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods on Netflix

Da 5 Bloods centers around a group of Vietnam War vets and their journey back to the country to retrieve some gold stashed away decades earlier. Delroy Lindo stands out among the cast as Paul, a veteran with PTSD who has a less-than-stellar relationship with his son (Jonathan Majors). Paul’s powerful monologue about choosing to die on his own terms confirmed Lindo’s work in the movie as not only the best of all the exceptional performances in Da 5 Bloods but also as ranking very high among the best in all of Spike Lee’s filmography.

2 John David Washington In BlacKkKlansman

Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a Black police officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department to help take down a prominent KKK outfit. Although Washington got his start in television, it was his performance as Stallworth that launched him into the public eye. His work in this movie is intense without feeling overwrought as he expertly handles the issues of race and racism in BlacKkKlansman with a charm that very few actors possess.

1 Denzel Washington In Malcolm X

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the titular American Civil Rights leader in Malcolm X is without a doubt the best performance given in a Spike Lee movie. Washington read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he met with people who knew the iconic historical figure, and he studied countless hours of footage so that he could portray as accurately as possible the man’s demeanor, character, and life’s work. While much of the movie’s success can be attributed to Lee’s masterful direction, the film’s concise editing, and Terence Blanchard’s sweeping score, all of which help move events along through the three-hour-plus runtime, it is ultimately Washington’s intoxicating performance that keeps audiences deeply engaged.

From Denzel Washington’s mannerisms during Malcolm X’s criminal days to his cadence and rhythmic scripture recitals, the actor almost makes viewers betray their own suspension of disbelief while watching the movie. Washington’s Oscar-nominated performance in Malcolm X transcends what is typically seen in biopics, and it should have actually won the Academy Award given that it tops the list of the best performances in Spike Lee movies.