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If I were to list the greatest American directors off the top of my head, I would say John Ford, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Lee. The iconoclast, the firebrand, there was once a time when the words, “A Spike Lee Joint” meant the world of cinema was about to be challenged, and it often was. And the man doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. BlacKkKlansman was yet another example of a director who has something to say, and said it he did. (Especially with that ending. Wow!)
But no matter the message, no story can be told without characters, and Spike Lee has had his fair share of iconic ones. In the course of his lengthy career that began in 1983 with his thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, to now, he’s had several that I could name. But I think I’ve picked the eight best. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. But like I say to my friends after a viewing of any Spike Lee Joint, “Let’s discuss.” In other words, leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Mookie – Do The Right Thing
With his Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, flat top, and pizza boxes in tow, I'm surprised I haven't seen anybody cosplaying as Mookie from Do the Right Thing. It would be a super easy costume to pull off. Played by Spike Lee himself, Mookie doesn't feel like going to work today. It's too hot for one, and he kind of thinks that delivering pizzas to people in his neighborhood is a lame job. His boss, Sal (played by the late Danny Aiello) is tolerant of Mookie, to an extent, but he's quickly getting annoyed by his employee's laid back approach to his job. I feel him.
Mookie's a pretty chill character throughout most of the movie, but after something tragic happens to his friend at the hands of a police officer, that's when Mookie enters iconic territory. Because he makes a decision that still has people debating today whether he did "the right thing" or not. I'm still debating it myself, to be honest.
Ron Stallworth – BlacKkKlansman
Can a real person be considered a character? I don't see why not. Especially when he has such an iconic performance. Played by John David Washington, who will soon star in Christopher Nolan's upcoming movie, Tenet, Ron Stallworth is the black police officer who pretended to be a white person to infiltrate the KKK.
And while yes, Adam Driver's character, Flip Zimmerman, is the one who actually stood in for Stallworth when it came to attending Klan meetings, Stallworth was the one who wrestled with the idea of actually being a black police officer in the first place. He also lied to his girlfriend about what he did, and, in a way, lied to himself since his partner was the one who was really putting his life on the line. Ron Stallworth is an iconic character just because he's so internally complex.
But here’s the thing. While some characters would have that as a dark secret, Jacob actually acts upon it and kisses her at a club. And Jacob’s not even the main character, which makes this awkward encounter stand out all the more. He even gets one of Spike’s trademark floating dolly shots after kissing her, making him a character I’ll never forget.
Jake Shuttlesworth – He Got Game
I feel like He Got Game is largely forgotten today, and I’m not sure why. In his third collaboration with Spike Lee, Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttleworth, a convict who tries to reconnect with his son, a top-ranked basketball player (played by Ray Allen), in the hopes of having him play for the state governor’s alma mater in order to get his sentence reduced.
Jake is both domineering and introspective. He takes care of a prostitute, but also once killed his wife. He’s a complex character and one who still resonates with me today.
Nola Darling – She’s Gotta Have It
Nola Darling (played by Tracy Camilla Johns) is seeing three different men, and that’s just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine. She can do whatever the hell she damn well pleases, and she does. So when her three suitors meet and discuss that she needs to pick one of them, she decides that no, she doesn’t. Monogamy is a form a slavery. But…
Well, I’ll just get this out of the way. She gets raped by one of her suitors. Spike Lee, himself, says that he regrets this decision, and he sort of rectified it with the Netflix TV series of the same name. Still, a young, liberated black woman back in a 1986 ain’t nothing to sneeze at.
“Gator” Purify – Jungle Fever
“Gator” Purify (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is such a strong presence in Jungle Fever that you almost forget that he’s a B-character in the A story. Gator is a crack addict, and nobody will give him money because they know he’ll just spend the money on more crack. But when he goes to his parent’s home and starts to pull apart their house for money, he gets shot by his own father. Tragic, tragic stuff.
Gator’s addiction is severe, and you don’t often see crack addicts in their element. It doesn’t hurt that this is one of Samuel L. Jackson’s greatest performances ever.
Troy – Crooklyn
Troy (played by Zelda Harris) is a little girl who has to grow up fast when her mother gets cancer. But even before all that, you get a sense that Troy has her head on her shoulders and is wise beyond her years. My favorite part is when she hits Snuffy (played by Spike Lee) with a baseball bat.
Spike Lee sometimes gets accused of not writing great female characters, but Troy is one of the most complex of all of his characters, so she definitely deserves a spot on this list.
Malcolm X – Malcolm X
Again, can a real person be considered “a character”? Well, when it’s Denzel filling those shoes, then yeah. Especially since he does such a spectacular job. What’s there really to be said? Denzel plays Malcolm X, and he’s amazing.
In fact, if you were to ask me, what is the best performance in any Spike Lee movie, I’d easily say, “Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.” But here’s what’s interesting: Lee was actually not the original director for Malcolm X. It was In the Heat of the Night director, Norman Jewison. I’d actually really like to see that version of X since I love speculating on alternate realities, but the version we got is so good that I really couldn’t envision anybody else directing Denzel in the role than Spike Lee.
And that's 8 iconic characters. There are several others I could have picked for this list (I’m probably the only person in America who likes Summer of Sam and John Leguizamo’s performance in it), but I feel like many people would agree with the eight I picked. But like I said up top, let’s discuss! Who’s your favorite Spike Lee character? Leave it in the comments.