Spike Lee’s Slice of Life: Crooklyn

PHX Film Collective presents Do the Right Thing Saturday, August 18 at 7:30pm. Changing Hands Phoenix. 

PHX Film Collective member Jeremy Carr writes about Spike Lee's return to his childhood neighborhood with 1994's Crooklyn. 

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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Five years after he set the screen ablaze with the insightful, incendiary brilliance of Do the Right Thing (1989), and as a follow-up to his 1992 masterpiece, the equally rousing Malcolm X, Spike Lee dialed back the thematic tone for a more intimate, semi-autobiographical look at spirited urban domesticity. Produced and directed by Lee, written with his siblings Joie Susannah Lee and Cinqué Lee, Crooklyn (1994) centers on the middle-class Carmichael family: mother and father Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) and Woody (Delroy Lindo) and their five rambunctious children, primarily the lone daughter, pre-teen Troy (Zelda Harris). From late spring through the summertime months, Lee’s film is largely set in the same Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn that just barely contained the contemporary commotion of Do the Right Thing, but here, in the year 1973, the setting plays more discreet host to a nostalgic, episodic memorial, a reflection on the good times and bad times and everything in between. As proclaimed by The Stylistics in the song that opens Crooklyn, their 1972 rendition of “People Make the World Go Round,” it’s about “The ups and downs, the carousel.”

Aurally illuminated by one of the greatest cinematic jukeboxes in film history, Crooklyn’s inner-city portrait is bursting at the seams with period detail and indigenous flavor, colored in the oranges and reds of a seasonal hue and enlivened by the sports and games that occupy itinerant, idle children with not much else to do. It’s also a habitually boiling melting pot of interracial, multiethnic proximity, of familial quarrels, awkward young love, and ceaseless spats between sexes, ages, and social strata. Most of this is realized during the opening credits alone, which affirms the vigorous pace of Crooklyn’s advancement. But there are also times when Lee tempers the dramatic thrust, imprinting upon the film a slow-motion sense of protracted memory, offering up a brief breath to take it all in.

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The Carmichael family is itself delivered by vociferous contention and low-key compassion, bitterness and grace. Woody and Carolyn are strong, compelling parents, while the precocious children are the very definition of problematic. Woody is a “leave me out of this” sort of father, the kind who belches at the dinner table and brings home ice cream while Carolyn labors to have plates cleaned of black eyed peas. Woody is accordingly endearing and agreeable, but it is schoolteacher Carolyn who deserves our sympathies; she undoubtably has her hands full and her, let’s just say, “hand-on” parenting, testifies to an insurmountable frustration. A struggling musician, Woody’s passion is also admirable, but it’s not paying the bills, and their dire financial straits prove to be a significant, if somewhat arbitrary, cause for concern (the family appears to be comparatively well-off and they’re looked upon with envy by many). As far as the children are concerned, their relationship is a typically belligerent case of grudgingly affectionate household enmity. Chaos emerges at every turn, often stemming from something as innocuous as Troy’s decision to share her Trix with the family dog but not her brothers. Yet there remains an undeniable kinship, seen in such skillfully handled scenes as when the brood manage to unite for a Partridge Family singalong or when an outstretched hand at the end of the film signals a mature stalemate in the fraternal strife.  

Save for Troy’s ephemeral visit to suburban Virginia, which might as well be another planet (what with its crickets and all), Crooklyn exists in an isolated arena. Figuratively disconnected from the world, where the New York Knicks, cartoons, and a next-door Vietnam veteran are among the few indications of a national context, the film is invested in its own distinctly pervasive atmosphere, one sustained by open windows, cool breezes, stoop stages, and the sinuous cinematography of Arthur Jafa, who does a remarkable job implementing Lee’s elaborate camera maneuvers. Amplifying its patent locality, and despite the fury that permeates much of Crooklyn, most of which seems rather superficial for all its bluster, there is a notable passivity in Lee’s treatment of the communal discord. Soothed by the sounds of Terence Blanchard’s satiating score, even the racist slurs and spiteful insults feel almost anodyne or at least instantly admissible; there is little of the overt maliciousness that pollutes the aforementioned Lee titles or his more recent triumph, BlacKkKlansman (2018).

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There is, however, an evocative restless to Crooklyn, a momentum that transcends the film’s lack of conventional plot. Ultimately, this vitality in contingent on Troy, and the considered, captivating performance of young Zelda Harris. Though her productivity has been relatively limited (mostly television and an appearance in Lee’s 1998 basketball drama, He Got Game), Harris excels as the central figure of Troy, who is likewise the primary vessel for audience identification. As good as the other actors are (and Woodard is especially exceptional), few convey such a candid expressiveness, easily conducting the viewer through the bewilderment and curiosity seen from her pre-pubescent eyes. Surrounded by a cast of quirky neighbors (Lee himself appears as Snuffy, a local glue huffer), poor Troy goes through a lot, and if Crooklyn is anything, it’s a demonstrative depiction of her tested evolution, a process capped by tragedy and decisive uplift.

Charged with moments of pleasure, pain, and, like most life experiences, the moments that hover somewhere in the middle, Crooklyn mounts an irritable compilation of individuals and incidents. And still, the film’s combustible company embodies something of an extended family; when push comes to shove, they’re all in it together. To that end, Crooklyn settles as one of Spike Lee’s most convivial productions. He presents disputes and divisions but does so in a film that is profoundly harmonious.

Chris Ayers