Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Crooklyn (1994)

Crooklyn (1994)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee and Spike Lee.
Starring: Alfre Woodard (Carolyn Carmichael), Delroy Lindo (Woody Carmichael), Zelda Harris (Troy Carmichael), Carlton Williams (Clinton Carmichael), Sharif Rashed (Wendell Carmichael), Chris Knowings (Nate Carmichael), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph Carmichael), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes / Jim), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic Powell), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Norman Matlock (Clem), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Joie Susannah Lee (Aunt Maxine), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), Manny Pérez (Hector), RuPaul (Connie the Bodega Woman), Tiasha Reyes (Minnie), Patrice Nelson (Viola).
I cannot help but wonder if Spike Lee’s Crooklyn was a response to the movies of the early 1990s that showed the inner cities are crime ridden cesspools – places where drugs, gangs and death hang over every scene. I’m talking about films like John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood, the Hughes Brothers Menace II Society – and even his own longtime cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson’s Juice. It’s not that Lee disagrees with those film per se – his next film, the brilliant Clockers, has a lot in common with them – but that Lee wanted to look back at a time, not that long ago, when that wasn’t the case. Crooklyn, which Lee co-wrote his sister Joie and his brother Cinque – is based on their memories of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. It wasn’t that poverty want a factor in their lives – it’s a running theme throughout the film – but more like the family unit remained strong, and the community around them supported them as well. There are no gangs in Crooklyn, no guns – and the two drug addicts, the sniff glue, are mainly played for laughs. Crooklyn isn’t an angry film, but it does show just how far things have fallen in the 20 years between when the film takes place – and when it was made.
The film takes place over a few months, from late in the school year, throughout summer. It doesn’t have a story per se, but proceeds with the messiness of life – a series of vignettes that take the Carmichael family through some happy and some sad times. Mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) is a high school teacher, trying to raise five children – four boys and one girl – with little financial help from her husband, Woody (Delroy Lindo) – a musician. He used to make more money, but now he wants to concentrate on his own music – serious music – but no one is willing to pay him for it. It’s a struggle to keep food on the table, and Con Ed from shutting off the power. The family argues – but in the way real families do. The siblings seem like siblings, the parents try to shield them for their own fights, but the kids know what is going on. There are conflicts with the neighbors – but again, it’s mostly humorous. When the girl, Troy (Zelda Harris) gets caught shoplifting, the bodega owner doesn’t call the cops – but gives a speech that will have a more lasting impact.
Troy eventually emerges as the main character in the film – and I have to say, she is probably the most well rounded female protagonist in all of Lee’s filmography. The movie was his sister Joie’s idea, so it makes sense that she emerges from the pack of four boys as the lead character – how she fits in them, how is a tomboy in many ways, but is still a girl, and stands apart from them. The movie follows her as she goes down South for the summer to spend it with an Uncle and Aunt, who have a lot more money – and an adopted daughter around Troy’s age. Lee does something fascinating visually here – the screen seems to stretch, and become slightly distorted. This is a strange, alien world to Troy – and Lee finds a fascinating way to show us in the audience that.
The movie is a film about childhood, but I’m not sure I would classify it as a coming of age story. Certainly the last act of the film could be called a loss of innocence for Troy and her brothers – the adult world that they have caught glimpses of, but don’t wholly understand throughout the film, make themselves plain in this act. But the kids remain kids, and life will continue.
Crooklyn perhaps doesn’t get the attention that many other Lee films gets, because it isn’t as flashy – Lee isn’t courting controversy here, but showing us the world of his childhood, and all that entails. It is a quieter, more sensitive film – and he has perfectly cast it (Lindo and Harris are the standouts here). The film is funny and sad, and has the ring of true life. It’s one of Lee’s most underappreciated gems.

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