If you’re looking for a good Spike Lee joint, you only have to know one thing: How hot is it in the movie? Spike Lee’s best movies are the ones in which the temperatures are highest, the ones in which New Yorkers sweat their ways through the heat waves and power outages of long hot summers. Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It, the heartfelt coming of age story Crooklyn, and the woefully underrated Summer of Sam all take place under sweltering conditions. And Lee’s greatest movie is also his most blistering: Do the Right Thing, which is set during the hottest day of the summer. As DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy tells it, warning of temperatures over 100 degrees, “There’s a Jheri curl alert! … If you have a Jheri curl, stay in the house or you’ll end up with a permanent black helmet on your head forever!”
Thankfully, Love Daddy’s forecast (“Hot!”) applies to most of Lee’s films. However, there are some movies in which the weather has been chillier—and the critical reception cooler as well. Recall She Hate Me, which sees its characters bundling up in winter coats, perhaps to protect themselves from the icy reviews. Miracle at St. Anna bounces back and forth between autumn in Tuscany and winter in New York City, and prompted a mostly cold response from fans and critics.
To demonstrate the relationship between high heat and high quality, we went back to the tapes and estimated the average temperature in each Spike Lee film. For most, the temperature is fairly obvious: In his new movie Red Hook Summer, Da Good Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) warns of “Record heat!” But in others we could only consult the characters’ choice of clothing, resulting in weather reports that, we admit, may be a little less precise. In some cases, we were able to consult history—for Get On the Bus, we looked up the weather during the Million Man March—while the weather in the sprawling biopic Malcolm X was so all over the charts that we had to leave it out.
So why does Lee return again and again to the heat? Red Hook Summer offers a clue. When Bishop Enoch takes the pulpit to preach about the heat, he compares his flock’s own condition, sweating in the pews, to that of the folks sitting in their air-conditioned cabins in the luxury cruise ships docked nearby. “It’s hot in the Hook,” he says, “Give us some of that cool you got!” For Bishop Enoch and many of Lee’s films, the heat is a symbol of inequality, of injustice—and the fiery discontentment it causes. Do the Right Thing is famous for turning up the heat on its characters to raise tensions on the block, but the same happens in many of Lee’s other movies, from the sweltering riots of the New York City blackout of 1977 (the simmering Summer of Sam) to when the Carmichael family has to sweat under the candlelight because they can’t pay their electric bill (Crooklyn).* But in the end the tensions will cool, and the best of these communities will find a way to come together. Lee is the poet of American summers, and he’s here to tell the story of love vs. heat.
Correction, Aug. 10, 2012: This post originally misspelled the name of the Carmichael family from Crooklyn.