Sunday, 29 July 2007
Clockers (1995) dir. Spike Lee
Starring: Mekhi Pfifer, Harvey Keitel, Isaiah Washington, Delroy Lindo
Spike Lee has never made a bad film, but time and time again his films are released and dismissed and disappear and unjustly forgotten. “Clockers” is one of those films. It’s the story of a project community in Brooklyn infected with the plague of crack cocaine dealers and users and how one man is caught in the middle of the inner city war on drugs.
The film opens by introducing two brothers Strike (Mekhi Pfifer) and Victor (Isaiah Washington). Victor is the responsible one – a wife, two kids, two steady jobs; Strike is a drug hustler (or “Clocker”) who works under local heavy Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). When the night manager of a local fast-food restaurant is found shot dead, Victor takes the rap, claiming self-defense. This confession doesn’t sit well with police detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) who thinks Victor is covering up for his irresponsible brother. Rocco’s partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) is content with accepting the confession and quickly moving on, but Rocco is determined to nail Strike.
Strike’s life becomes threatened when Rodney learns about the cops’ interest in Strike. Suddenly his business becomes jeopardized. Strike continues to proclaim his innocence, but to Rodney he doesn’t need a judge and jury to decide what’s best for him. Meanwhile the community which includes good hard-working families like Victor’s is shaken up and torn apart by the crackheads, dealers, and deaths which result from the events.
The film is based on a novel by Richard Price and the screenplay is co-written by Price and Lee. Lee juggles a dozen interesting characters and subplots and interweaves them without losing the narrative drive of the film. And the film never feels like a crime investigation film, or a whodunit. The relationship of Victor and Strike is strong. They have a couple of terrific scenes together. Both Mekhi Pfifier and Isaiah Washington give ‘star-making’ performances. Washington has great range as an actor. Contrasting his family-devoted community man character in this film with, say, his gangsta-heavy characters in “Bulworth” and “Out of Sight” makes that clear. Mekhi Pfifer plays his messed up brother with great depth. He can talk the talk and be “down” like the rest of his homies, but beneath his kissing death and swearing there’s a wounded soul. And when you see him playing with his Lionel train sets his soft introspective side comes out.
Strike also has an interesting relationship with a local kid, Tyrone. Tyrone looks up to Strike and Strike recognizes the path Tyrone’s taking in his youth. At times Strike enjoys the adulation Tyrone has for him and at times he scolds him for it. This type of relationship is not new territory for this type of film, but with the state of urban violence in a city like mine (Toronto) it’s never been more relevant.
Spike Lee knows how to deliver a good speech. Delroy Lindo, one of the great character actors working today has a great role, and is given a great speech when he pontificates so eloquently on the ‘beauty’ of crack. Another great speech is given to local crack dealer Errol Barnes who gives his own take on the addictive nature of drugs.
As usual with Lee’s films, it’s visually stunning. Shot by Lee’s frequent collaborator Malik Hassan Sayeed, the film uses a variety of visual styles. The interrogation scene channels the hot overhead lighting technique of Robert Richardson, but his daytime scenes use a saturated overexposed and grainy look to it. Sayeed blows out his skies leaving a permanently white background. This isolates the community from the outside world since we can’t see anything in the background except the project buildings and a plain white sky. And though the cinematography is in your face so is every character in the film so the effect certainly isn’t distracting.
“Clockers” was the first pairing of the two great New York filmmakers - Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese (as producer). And although Scorsese lends frequent player Harvey Keitel to Lee, Scorsese doesn’t overtly put his own stamp on the film. The film remains Lee’s from beginning to end. Lately I’m looking back at Spike’s older films and in many ways rediscovering a great filmmaker alive and working in his prime. And it’s a joy. Let’s give him the respect he deserves. After you see “Do the Right Thing”, pop in “Clockers”, you will enjoy.
Buy it here: Clockers
Here’s a very intense scene: