Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, summer of 1973. A kid yells from the fire escape outside a brownstone window to his friends on the street below. A swooping crane shot glides from him down to the street, then captures a montage of bodies and objects in constant motion: kids racing each other and playing double dutch, hopscotch, stickball, and skelly, and playing with Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots; men playing dominoes and kids flying paper airplanes; an Afro pick going through a kid’s stiff, nappy hair. On the soundtrack — in just the first song of a golden jukebox cornucopia of ’70s hits — the tremulous falsetto of The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins, Jr. floats above it all, exquisitely interpreting Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s lyrics, which rattle off a litany of societal ills: striking sanitation workers and bus drivers, leaving behind dirty streets and polluted air; Wall Street traders blaming their waning fortunes on hippies, yet still remaining “big men smokin’ in their easy chairs, on a fat cigar without a care.” Despite all this, the song’s narrator is sanguine, fatalistic, and just a little bit hopeful: “But that’s what makes the world go round / The ups and downs, a carousel / Changing people’s heads around / Go underground, young man / People make the world go round.”
The preceding forms the opening credits sequence of Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn, his seventh feature and one of the greatest works of his vast, provocative filmography. One of the director’s supreme talents is his ability to put together absolutely killer opening sequences. (Besides Crooklyn, one need look no further than Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Clockers, and He Got Game for further evidence.) For its part, Crooklyn’s opener establishes the thematic and philosophical template for the film to follow: life inexorably progresses in its unpredictable shapes and patterns, and despite the ups and downs of life’s carousel, the changing people who live these lives continue to forever go round and round. As a consequence, Crooklyn is essentially plotless, more interested in capturing the vicissitudes of human existence than in forcing it to fit any coming-of-age story clichés.
The film follows the Carmichaels, a family whose patriarch, Woody (Delroy Lindo), owns a brownstone apartment building in Bed-Stuy. Woody’s a jazz pianist, resolutely refusing to compromise his purist musical principles to play popular songs, regardless of the precarious financial position this puts his family in. (Crooklyn’s soundtrack, containing some of the best pop songs of the period, functions in part as a fairly powerful argument against Woody’s unyieldingly rigid musical philosophy.) Mom Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) works as a schoolteacher to bring in some income, but she’s being run ragged by Woody’s irresponsible approach to family finances, as well as having to look after her five children, consisting of four boys and one girl.
This girl, Troy (Zelda Harris, in one of the all-time great debut film performances) exists at the center of this human maelstrom, and she also points to the main galvanizing impetus of the project, which isn’t Spike Lee but instead his younger sister, Joie Lee, a sometime actor in her brother’s films (besides a small role in Crooklyn, she previously portrayed a main character in Mo’ Better Blues) who co-wrote the screenplay with Spike and Cinqué Lee, another brother. Joie Lee has said in interviews that Crooklyn is basically her story, which is why she insisted on an additional “story by” credit, as well as ensuring that Spike Lee paid her for her work. Indeed, this is Lee’s first film since his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It to focus on a female protagonist, and one of his very few to do so at all. Troy, despite her tender years — she’s nine going on ten as the film begins — is a powerful force, refusing to take shit from anyone, not her brothers, not the other girls on the block, and definitely not the annoying boy who pesters her, complaining to her mom that Troy’s mean to him, and eventually having a full bucket of water dumped on his head by Troy from a few stories above.
Lee’s film prior to this was Malcolm X, another masterpiece, and Lee was by all accounts looking for a smaller, more intimate piece following that large-scale, contentious, and controversial production. Crooklyn fit the bill perfectly, a way to get back to the neighborhood portrayed in Do the Right Thing, albeit less overtly political, and here set in the past, its nostalgic glaze counteracted by a recognition of darker, more tragic realities. In an interesting cinematic confluence, Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film Amarcord would have been released in Italy in the winter of the year in which Crooklyn is set, and would be playing in theaters in Manhattan the following fall. In a way, then, this film can be seen as Spike Lee’s Amarcord, a similarly colorful reminiscence filtered through the perspective of a young protagonist. Rather underappreciated by critics and audiences upon its initial release, it has gained considerable status over the past quarter-century, and its myriad visual and aural pleasures are hardly exhausted even after many re-viewings. (I watch this film myself at least once or twice a year.) To paraphrase the late, great Don Cornelius, whose stylish, endlessly energetic Soul Train dancers grace the closing credits, you can bet your last money that Crooklyn’s a stone gas, honey.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.