Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Clockers (1995)

Clockers (1995)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee and Richard Price based on the novel by Price.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (Det. Rocco Klein), John Turturro (Det. Larry Mazilli), Delroy Lindo (Rodney Little), Mekhi Phifer (Ronald 'Strike' Dunham), Isaiah Washington (Victor Dunham), Keith David (André the Giant), Pee Wee Love (Tyrone 'Shorty' Jeeter), Sticky Fingaz (Scientific), Regina Taylor (Iris Jeeter), Fredro (Go), Elvis Nolasco (Horace), Tom Byrd (Errol Barnes), Lawrence B. Adisa (Stan), Hassan Johnson (Skills), Frances Foster (Gloria), Michael Imperioli (Detective Jo-Jo), Mike Starr (Thumper), Lisa Arrindell Anderson (Sharon Dunham), Paul Calderón (Jesus), Brendan Kelly (Big Chief), Graham Brown (Herman Brown), Steve White (Darryl Adams), Spike Lee (Chucky), Harry Lennix (Bill Walker), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Errol).
Up until Clockers, Spike Lee had made it a point to not tell the stories that many other black filmmakers spend most of their careers working on – stories of drugs, gangs and violence. Lee had other issues on his mind – and wanted to expand the types of stories black filmmakers could make. Yet, in the mid-1990s, those stories were important to the black community in America – and needed to be told. With Clockers, Lees adds another masterwork to the list that includes Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society. Those two films feel like flip sides to the same coin – Menace being a response to Boyz. With Clockers. Lee is working at something different.
His story is about Strike (Mekhi Phifer) – a young, black man living in New York housing projects, working the benches. He and his crew are there around the clock, selling crack to whoever wants it – they have a complex set of signals and gestures, designed to protect them should the cops show up. They show up a lot. Sometimes you get arrested, sometimes not – it depends on how the cops feel at the time. Strike’s boss is Rodney (Delroy Lindo), a scary drug kingpin, who runs a candy store. In one scene, we watch as he grooms another batch of young kids – some of whom will definitely come to work for him some day. His employee turnover is high – with all the deaths and prison time served by those under him. Strike stands back, and mouths along with the words Rodney speaks – he knows the pitch.
The film hinges on a murder early in the film. Rodney isn’t happy with one of his employees – who he has set up in a fast food restaurant in order to sell there, off the streets. He tells Strike that if something were to happen to this young man, Strike could take his place. He’d be off the streets, making real money. Strike runs into his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) – a hardworking man, with two jobs, a wife and a kid, who is still poor – and is also beaten down and tired. The young man does in fact end up dead – but who pulled the trigger?
The film then is a police procedural and a whodunit in a sense. The lead detective is Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) – who is at least a little different from his partner (John Turturro) and the other cops. Not so different that he doesn’t participate in what could generously be called gallows humor (it’s actually more like cruel indifference) over the body of the dead kid, but different enough that he doesn’t want to just slam the case shut when an arrest falls into their lap. It’s not that he cares really – but he thinks he’s getting played, and he cannot stand that. He’ll push harder than most – which arguably is what leads to everything that follows.
Lee’s ultimate point with Clockers is, I think, that the gangs, drugs and violence has so infected these communities, there is no escaping it – even if you want to stay out of it. For the users, they are trapped in a cycle of addiction, for the dealers, they are caught in a cycle of harassment and arrests – they make money, sure, but they could be shot at any moment. For the cops, there are in the communities every day – and mostly, they don’t really care (Turturro refers to the projects as a self-cleaning oven) – the drug cops looking more for bribes, than making arrests. If you are an honest citizen, trying to support your family – like Victor is – you’re stuck in poverty, even if you work two jobs around the clock – and you still end up with less money than those drug dealers. If you’re a mother trying to keep your young son away from the gangs, it’s hard. You cannot watch them all the time, and the drugs are everywhere. There is no escape – your life is as good as ruined. Which makes the end of the movie make sense – what else is Strike supposed to do?
When you look at Clockers along Lee’s previous film, Crooklyn, you see what the neighborhoods were to what they became. The characters in Crooklyn were poor – but they were a part of a community that looked out for one another, and where your kids would still be safe on the streets. That community has all but vanished in Clockers – one local cop, Andre (Keith David) – does his best to help the young boys in the projects, but he’s fighting a losing battle, and knows it. Lee offers no solution in Clockers – it’s a problem still relevant now, 23 years later, but shows what has become of those streets – where community has vanished, and been replaced with guns, drugs and death. Clockers is an exciting film in many ways – Lee has made a great genre film here – but it’s also an incredibly sad film, that offers no hope that things will get better anytime soon.

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