Spike Lee: Crooklyn (1994) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Crooklyn (1994)

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With his seventh feature-film, Spike Lee takes a step back from the politically charged discourse of Malcolm X and Jungle Fever for something more personal.  Crooklyn is the story of Troy, a girl growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn circa 1972.

Neighborhood at playAndrewCommentaryBannerI think it's safe to say, now seven feature-films in, and with the movies that we still have to look forward to, that Crooklyn is an anomaly in Spike Lee's work.  There are autobiographical aspects in his other films but most of them have come from his teenage to adult experiences with his family, racism in society, and the different types of culture that he grew up with.  Those are usually commented on directly, like his use of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" in the closing passages of Mo' Better Blues.

Crooklyn is a weird, kind of wonderful film, because instead of commenting on his childhood directly he takes pieces of what he remembers about growing up in the Brooklyn and tries to funnel those experiences through something he most definitely was not - a girl on the cusp of adolescence.  There are some indicators that she may not have been a girl the whole time, her name being Troy for one, but that does not end up mattering a lot.  In the end he creates a transformative tale of a girl who will do what she needs to protect her family and ends up refuting most of the gendered problems his films have had so far.

The structure is unusual for Spike's films, as each chapter seems to take place in its own self-contained universe that the rest of the characters happen to visit when the scene changes.  But this allows Lee to fill the frames of the story with loving grotesqueries, odd distortions of neighbors, shopkeepers, and local creeps that may cause Troy problems.  Because of the storybook way Lee approaches the visuals, which are the most vibrant so far, and the indirect path of Lee reliving his childhood through the strong Troy, Crooklyn becomes the most unusual Spike Lee film so far.

Crooklyn was warmly received by critics, if not venerated, and audiences mostly ignored it.  I'm not sure it serves as an essential piece of Spike's canon, but it's definitely worth one watch, and it is also one of the few Spike films I plan on revisiting once we're done.‏A growing warriorKyle Commentary BannerI’m starting to notice a personal theme throughout this project, which is that Lee’s films are often more interesting to me on paper after the fact than while I’m watching them—Crooklyn fits that mold. I like a lot of what’s going on in theory, but it took awhile for anything to cohere into any kind of solid emotional reaction. Some of that is the way the opening scenes return to the fragmented, rolling energy of Do the Right Thing—scenes jumping from character to character and location to location to convey the rhythm of life in the neighborhood.

It's a great technique, and Lee uses it well here, but it also ends up prioritizing neighborhood itself as a character over any one of the individuals we meet. Once we do start getting to focus in more closely on the family—in those great dinner table scenes—it's almost as if the movie got tired of jumping around so much and is taking some quieter, personal moments to rest. Lee's trying to simply present the context in which Troy is growing up, absent of any story or distinct act structure—an idea again I like in theory—but when watching it this first time around, it was distancing. It came across as scattered.

It seems like a lot of the point here is to present moments with their own lingering power and impact, the way memories often creep up without distinct beginning and end points. That's how I'm remembering the movie now, and it's working better than when I was watching it. However, there's also the plot development late in the film, in which Troy's mother gets sick and hospitalized—this is an necessary part of the story, as it's required for Troy to reach her endpoint as a character, but even now it comes across as forced. For a movie that floats so seemingly without an external plot engine imposing acts and arcs, much of this last sequence feels mandated. A relatable life-changing event must occur for Troy and, prefigured by 2 or 3 lines at earlier points in the film, this is it.

It does lead to some very genuine moments, as when the kids hear about their mother and break down, telling their father that it's not their fault—or when Troy wanders to the kitchen in the middle of the night mistaking the sounds of her father banging pots around for he and her mother fighting. But it left me with a middling reaction—these are the moments where we should be most emotionally connected to Troy, where the movie's events should cohere into a larger experience, and yet I found myself wanting more of the same free-form structure that kept me from really engaging with the earlier scenes. It was and is a strange experience.

It's also possible that I am cold and heartless. What say you?‏Dinner timeNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI know you aren't heartless.  No one who hates The Butterfly Effect as much as you do has a heart, because there has to be something there to bring that fire to a violent roar.

But to discuss your concern, I actually had a similar experience with Crooklyn, though the film worked better for me as I was watching it and settled into greatness when I sat down to think about it.  Mom's death at the end didn't feel forced to me because each little corner of the neighborhood tells a story that gives Troy the experience she needs to become one of the leaders of the family.  I hesitate to say mother, because one of the great lines at the end of the film is when her brother says that she's combing his hair too hard, and Troy responds that she is not mother.  Because of the rocky nature of her parent's relationship, she's been preparing to take place of one or the other since she was born, which also helps to explain how Spike was able to write Troy without any distinguishing gender markers.

That blurring of gender lines resulted in one of the weirdest, best scenes of the film when we watch a trans-woman (played with great energy by RuPaul) dance with the Puerto Rican store clerk.  Ru's screen presence is electric, and in another superb costume from Ruth Carter her tight shorts and top scream out against shelves with their generic goods.  The clerk is dancing with a strong woman, even if she was born a bit different from others, and the beautiful thing is no one cares.  They're having a great time and when Troy gets home she stuffs her shirt and starts deciding what kind of person she wants to be when she grows up.Strength and sassI see how you, and it looks like a lot of audience members, might not connect with these moments as thoroughly because Spike isn't underlining every one of these moments with his heavy "message" approach, but builds lessons with a lot more subtlety.  One example of this is a confrontation early in the film between one of Troy's black neighbors, and her goggle-glasses wearing white musician who is constantly harassing Troy and her family.  The black neighbor punches out glasses in a scene with a ton of color and cheering, but when she comes back it is night, all the color has been drained from the scene, and he is quietly taken away.  Instead of building that energy to a rupture point, like they are in Do the Right Thing, it's another quiet lesson for Troy - doing the right thing doesn't mean doing the justified thing, and there are consequences either way.

A key post-film reading for me was Mark D. Cunningham's essay, "Through the Looking Glass and Over the Rainbow."  One of his key arguments is that Crooklyn is a fairy-tale, and likens it to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.  I don't agree with the agree with the literature he chose for comparison, but the fairy-tale vibe is strong with Crooklyn.  My pick is The Once and Future King, as Troy is not nearly as passive as the heroines of either one of those stories, and the lessons she learns teach her to be a fighter as well as a leader.  In the second-best double-dolly shot of Spike's career, she holds her version of Excalibur up at the end and charges against the monster huffers of her neighborhood, and beats them out.

To return to your original point, the more I thought about Crooklyn, the more I realized every single scene is like that.  She's learning to negotiate, deal with violence, her own anger, and all while being guided by her dreams in a fairy-tale style of broad colors and sweeping camera shots with monsters both harmless and threatening coming into her life.‏ExcaliburTiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the sequences we haven't talked much about works really well in the fairy-tale comparison as well: the Virginia scenes. Lee shoots these scenes in a weird aspect ratio (or shot in widescreen but didn't adjust the ratio in the final film?), so right off the bat we've got the world of Troy's out-of-state relatives presented in a skewed fashion. The colors in these scenes are also softer, with the family's house loaded with pastels and cooler greens compared to the warm brown and red hues of the Brooklyn scenes.

Frances Foster's performance as Aunt Song is also, appropriately, like something out of a comedy. She exaggerates her speech patterns and mannerisms to be, like the cinematography, just one step shy of realistic. Some of the best shots in the movie are Troy's reactions to Aunt Song, her husband, and their same-aged daughter seemingly looming over her in a row. Their suburban pleasantness even as Aunt Song undercuts Troy's upbringing and city culture, all with a smile, is almost Lynchian at times.

These scenes also function nicely to show Troy's own developing of a sense of agency and independence. She remains increasingly proud of her Brooklyn neighborhood and her family in the face of Aunt Song's two-faced disapproval, and whereas her family drove her there at the beginning of the summer, she gets a ticket and travels back to New York on her own.‏DreamlandNewer Andrew cutout commentaryYears of squashed aspect ratios, terrible pan and scan, and otherwise poor film transfers made me think something had gone wrong with my Amazon rental.  It turns out that the vertical anamorphic distortion was intentional, and works beyond the maturation narrative aspects that you mentioned.  The distortion also highlights Troy's simple longing to return to the world she's familiar with, because in Brooklyn her life is lived in those vertical, packed-together homes.  She recognizes pretty quickly that the ranch-styled homes and broad spaces that they live in foster a sense of individual weirdness that's more closed-off than the forced encounters of her Brooklyn neighborhood.

It's a nice, and subtle, dig from Spike at the gentrification process that a lot of suburbs went through after white flight from the cities.  In order to fit in her Virginia relatives have adopted much calmer demeanors, and when the television is on its to one of those white preachers leading the viewing congregation in song and prayer versus the awesome dance lines of Soul Train in the Brooklyn household.

Since you brought up the performances, the ones in Crooklyn are my favorite so far because of the extra nuance in the characters and that bit of extra spunk everyone brings to the production.  This is especially important in Zelda Harris' case because she made the decision to hold that adolescent turmoil mostly inside her eyes, and with her thoughtful looks and carefully controlled bursts of aggression don't come off as one of those annoying child performers who are pushed to act artificially smarter and sassier than the adults around them.  I also loved Delroy Lindo's performance as the father as its modulated somewhere between total incredulity at his family and a necessary tone of respect that he develops for his wife and daughter.

Even if you don't feel the same way about Crooklyn, I hope that you at least accept it as something of an important and unique creature in Spike's filmography so far.  It feels like a controlling exhale after years of public scrutiny and high emotion, settling down to tell a small and inspiring story using gender cues that he hasn't been kind with before, and leaving an inspiring note with those left alive instead of a lesson from the dead.‏Comforting papaTiny Kyle CommentaryThat's an interesting note to end on now that we're getting closer to a new phase of his career—that so many of his messages come from death or some kind of breakdown. I'll be interested to see how his documentary films later on split between those subjects and the more joyful celebrations of his chosen topics.

Next week is Clockers, which if I remember right is not skewed particularly toward the joyful.‏

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Next time, Clockers.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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