Spike Lee’s latest film, the universally acclaimed BlacKkKlansman, is out this week. It tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s. Netting Lee the Grand Prix from Cannes this year, the movie encapsulates everything great about a Spike Lee joint. Evocative, expertly-chosen music is a big part of that equation.
BlacKkKlansman poignantly closes with a rare Prince recording, his stripped-down version of Mary Don’t You Weep. In fact, it hadn’t even been officially released when Troy Carter — who advises the Prince estate — informed Lee he had the right end-credits song.
“So I invited Troy to a private screening,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “And after, he said, ‘Spike, I got the song.’ And that was Mary Don’t You Weep, which had been recorded on cassette in the mid-’80s.”
Lee thought it was entirely too fortuitous. The Purple One had to be communicating from beyond the grave. “Prince wanted me to have that song,” he reasoned. “I don’t care what nobody says. My brother Prince wanted me to have that song. For this film. There’s no other explanation to me. This cassette is in the back of the vaults. In Paisley Park. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it’s discovered? Nah-ah. That ain’t an accident!”
In honor of this perfect track and BlacKkKlansman’s release, here are some of the best songs featured in Spike Lee films. To keep it fair, we’re only choosing one per movie. Sorry Teddy Riley!
It’s hard to think of Spike Lee without thinking of Chuck D. Before the Public Enemy emcee formed Prophets of Rage with the rest of Rage Against the Machine, he teamed up with RATM frontman Zack de la Rocha and The Roots for Burned Hollywood Burned. A follow-up to Burn Hollywood Burn from 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet, this stinger is the perfect companion to a movie about racism in show business.
Just like Summer of Sam, the soundtrack to Lee’s semi-autobiographical Crooklyn is chock full of huge songs. There are so many anthemic and iconic tracks, that it’s hard to pick. How could you go wrong with Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, The Jackson 5, or pretty much anyone else in volumes one and two? Honestly, choosing Pusherman might seem like a head scratcher when you stare at the track list. But it illustrates key characteristics of Spike Lee as a filmmaker: He has balls, and he isn’t afraid to be referential. If you recognize Pusherman, you almost certainly identify it with the iconic Blaxploitation flick Super Fly. Curtis Mayfield wrote it specifically for the film, for god’s sake! An inferior director might’ve eschewed that kind of connection for a whole host of reasons, but Lee wasn’t shy about it.
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Whatever your feelings on Lee’s jazz pic, you can’t argue with the caliber of the soundtrack. The star is undoubtedly Guru and DJ Premier’s educational, sample-heavy missive about the genre’s history. While jazz rap existed before this song hit, Jazz Thing made it “a thing.” It also prefigured Guru’s 1993 album Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1, which may have been slightly overlooked at the time but has since become a mainstay.
When the Levees Broke is a harrowing look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Lee tapped frequent collaborator Terence Blanchard for the score, which added so much gravity to the project. Not only is Blanchard a News Orleans native, but he’s actually featured with his family in the HBO documentary. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Blanchard once said of writing the score. “When I needed to take a break, there was no place to go. I would step outside to the reality of what I was working on inside.” When you listen to the album A Tale Of God’s Will, which contains compositions from the documentary, it’s palpable.
Malcolm X (1992)
While it’s absent from the official soundtrack thanks to complicated legal machinations, Sam Cooke’s masterpiece is easily the most powerful song in a movie full of powerful songs. Inspired in part by an arrest in Louisiana and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, it provides a moving musical backdrop to one of Lee’s best pictures. With Cooke’s pensive, nuanced delivery and the immaculate instrumentation, it’s hard to believe A Change Is Gonna Come was originally a B-side.