Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Starring: Delory Lindo, Alfre Woodard, Zelda Harris, David Patrick Kelly
By Alan Bacchus
After Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn is Spike Lee’s next best fiction film, a nearly forgotten stylish masterpiece. It’s a foot-tapping fast paced colourful jaunt through the memories of Spike Lee’s childhood in Brooklyn in the ‘70s. This is Spike Lee at his most inspired. Watching the technical bravura of Crooklyn is like watching a confident Martin Scorsese at the height of his creative abilities.
Sadly, most people have either never heard of this film or they’ve simply forgotten about it. After all, when Spike Lee is mentioned, people seem to think about Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, his great documentary work and maybe his mid-career commercial renaissance with Inside Man and a bunch of other films.
In the magnificent opening credit sequence, Lee kick-starts the film was a superbly shot and edited montage of various childhood games played by street kids. Before video games, we all played hopscotch, freeze, handball, jump rope, etc. Instantly, a swell of nostalgia overcomes us. These were simple days when time seemed to stand still and kids didn’t have a care in the world. The only thing on these kids’ minds was how to get candy or ice cream, pulling pranks on each other and sneaking around on their parents to watch Soul Train or the Knicks game late at night.
Lee’s point of view into this world is nine-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), the sister to four rambunctious brothers. Her parents, Woody (Lindo) and Carolyn (Woodard), like everyone, struggle to make ends meet. Carolyn is a teacher with a comfortable income, but the family is burdened by Woody’s more tenuous career as a freelance musician, an artist with integrity but with little means of providing support. While her parents put food on the table, Troy and the other kids do what kids do – run around getting into all kinds of trouble like they own the neighbourhood.
There’s not much of a traditional throughline in the film. Instead, nostalgia and the episodic set pieces push the movie forward. Lee’s technical hallmarks are in full force, including the pathetic glue sniffers, one of whom is played by Spike Lee himself. The film also features wildly spinning camera moves and his signature tracking shots, which have the stationary actors being carried through a scene by the camera dolly. Cross-dressing diva RuPaul even gets a wild set piece in a raucous slow motion dance sequence during which (s)he seduces the diminutive local convenience store owner.
One of the most inspired sequences of Lee’s career is when Troy is sent to the suburbs in the South for the summer. The culture shock of living in the middle-class white picket fence environment is visualized with a distorted and stretched picture effect. Like watching an anamorphic movie stretched on a full-screen television, it creates a disorientation that complements Troy’s alienation.
Like the more celebrated works of Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), Spike Lee uses pop music of the era to help drive the film. Wall-to-wall soul and funk anthems are sharply edited with the camera whips, pans, crawls, climbs and dances so the movement is in step with the bouncing soundtrack.
Lee brings in some rather serious plot turns in the third act, which threaten to put a damper on the whole affair. But even in death Lee finds humour and the joy of life. Perhaps this is why Crooklyn never became remembered as fondly as Boogie Nights, Goodfellas or even Do the Right Thing. However, even in the dark moments Crooklyn is a celebration of black urban youth, a rare commodity in cinema these days. Please go out and rediscover Spike Lee's sorely under-appreciated Crooklyn.