For all the recent attention paid to the art of the opening title sequence—and to innovators of the form like Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Fincher—one name hasn’t come up enough. Over his nearly three decade career in features, Spike Lee has brought us more great opening credits sequences than perhaps any other contemporary director. His most famous title sequence, for Do the Right Thing, had its 25th anniversary the other day, and perhaps his most gorgeous title sequence yet, the Lil Buck-featuring opening credits of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, premiered just last month.
Credit must go not only to Lee, but to his close collaborator, Randall Balsmeyer of Big Film Design, who has worked on nearly every one of his sequences. Balsmeyer has also done memorable work for movies like the Coen brothers’ Fargo and The Big Lebowki, but his work with Lee packs an extra punch. Lee considers his audacious credit sequences to be one of his signatures, like his famous dolly shot, and has said again and again that he always takes great care with them since they “set the tone, set the table for what the film is to be about.” The sequences also play to Lee’s strengths. While critics sometimes complain that Lee’s movies are “preachy,” title sequences have just a few minutes to get a point across, and his generally succeed. Others claim Lee’s movies are overly stylized, but title sequences offer a brief stretch to really let loose. No wonder the Tonight Show, when it needed a new opening sequence, turned to Lee.
Below is a look back at the best sequences from Lee and Balsmeyer, with some thoughts on what makes each of them work so well.
1. School Daze (1988)
School Daze was Spike Lee’s first studio film, but already he was bold. Lee likes to put his movie’s messages in historical context (see also the closing credits for Bamboozled), and for this film about the struggle to unite black people worldwide against Apartheid (the last lines are “Wake up!”), he began with a whirlwind history of the African-American Civil Rights movement thus far, with an emphasis on its ties to universities. (The credits are written in varsity letters.) By the time the movie opens on the campus of an all-black college that hasn’t divested yet from South Africa, you’re left wondering, “What happened?”
2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing began where School Daze left off, with a character saying “Wake up!” But before it gets to Mister Señor Love Daddy’s wake-up call, there’s this call to action: Set to “Fight the Power,” which Lee commissioned from Public Enemy for the movie, newcomer Rosie Perez shakes and grooves in a pair of boxing gloves. The sequence has become so iconic that it’s hard to say anything new about it, but here’s one thing that may surprise you: It was inspired by Bye Bye Birdie.
3. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
The opening sequence for Mo’ Better Blues is more restrained, but its lingering shots of trumpets and bare bodies—lit like women and Walther PPKs in a James Bond opening sequence—convey one of the movie’s main themes: the intertwining of jazz and sex.
4. Jungle Fever (1991)
Jungle Fever is about crossing the distance between black and white, between Harlem and Bensonhurst, and so for the credits Lee had an idea: “what it would look like if all the conventional prejudices that people usually hide on the inside were on signs for people to see.” Balsmeyer relettered real NYC street signs and even stole one right from their own street. The result is darkly hilarious and unflinching, a typographical take on one of Do the Right Thing’s most daring scenes, and a map of the kind of journey that killed Yusuf Hawkins, to whom the movie is dedicated.
5. Malcolm X (1992)
For Malcolm X, Lee took the message of School Daze’s credits and made it even blunter. Laying a Malcolm X speech (voiced by Denzel Washington) over tape of the Rodney King beating, Lee made clear from the start that Malcolm X’s message was still relevant decades after his death, and that, in Lee’s words, “things haven’t changed much.” In case that idea wasn’t clear enough, Lee intercuts the tape with a second image: the American flag slowly burning until it reveals an X.
6. Clockers (1995)
Clockers was the first movie Lee made that could be called a thriller, and he wanted the credits to establish from the beginning that he wasn’t going to contribute to the glamorization of guns. To achieve this, he put the cost of gun violence up front, in the form of grisly photographs of gun victims, contrasting them with shots of graffiti and comics drawn to make guns look cool. The photographs were staged, Lee said, but the sequence’s blend of artifice and real-life tragedy culminates in a headline about Nicholas Heyward, a Brooklyn 13-year-old who was killed by police while playing cops and robbers with a toy gun.
7. Get on the Bus (1996)
With close-ups of a mostly unclothed black man in shackles, chains, and an iron collar, the credits for Get on the Bus at first appear straightforward: This must be a slave from centuries ago, the viewer thinks. But soon some of these chains we see are shiny and brand new, and the handcuffs look contemporary, like those worn by one of the film’s main characters. Is Lee equating the prison-industrial complex with modern slavery? He is, at the very least, questioning again how much has really changed.
8. He Got Game (1998)
With He Got Game, Lee wanted to signal from the beginning that his movie about a high school kid from Coney Island’s projects would resonate with grand American myths. So he took shots of basketball players practicing around the country and set them to the music of Aaron Copland. “When I listen to his music, I hear America, and basketball is America,” he said of choosing the composer for this sequence. And the particular Copland piece he chose echoes another American myth about talent and hard work: “John Henry.”
9. The 25th Hour (2002)
The credits sequence for The 25th Hour starts out abstract: Rays of light stretch toward the sky. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that these rays are the Tribute in Light memorial for the victims of the September 11th attacks. Lee wanted the grieving, fear-stricken movie to express something about the mood of post-9/11 America—and especially post-9/11 New York City. The sequence, beautifully shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, now stands on its own as a sort of documentary. Filmed in one night, it’s some of the best footage of the 30-day period in 2002 when the Tribute in Light haunted the skies.
10. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
The opening titles for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus combine elements from throughout Lee’s and Balsmeyer’s career. As in Do the Right Thing, Lee and longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown (whom Balsmeyer calls a “genius”) cross-cut between shots of a dancer performing in various urban settings. (In this case, it’s the incredible Lil Buck.) As in He Got Game, they equate basketball with dance. (Toward the end, Lil Buck even pauses his jookin’ to pantomime a layup.) And as in Red Hook Summer, they show the basketball courts and waterfront of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Like the classic title sequences for North by Northwest and Panic Room, the sequence also uses situational type—text integrated, using perspective, into the environment—except here, because it’s a Spike Lee joint, it’s graffiti. Like so many of these sequences, it combines the old and the new into something stunning.