After the rigors of his last film, Malcolm X, director Spike Lee apparently decided to try something in a slightly lighter vein. The change suits him. His latest, an easygoing, nostalgic comedy titled Crooklyn, lacks the flashy, daring visual rhetoric that has characterized Lee's past work. But it also lacks the willfully wrongheaded thematic leaps that have marred all of his previous films, even the best, Do the Right Thing.
Whenever Lee, as a writer and director, turns from observation to activism, he's left trying to reconcile his keen aesthetic intellect with his partisan sentiments, and he can't do it--his films immediately jump the track. Jungle Fever was full of terrific moviemaking, but it flailed around and came to nothing, because Lee wanted to make political points that he instinctively knew, as an artist and humanist, didn't hold up. They weren't even relevant to the subject. Malcolm X was polluted around the edges by Lee's silly rabble-rousing (as in the opening titles), but he couldn't reconcile this nonsense with the incongruities of the main story--Malcolm's life--and he was too honest to try. Crooklyn, co-written by Spike's sister Joie Susannah Lee and his brother Cinqu Lee, is all observation, no significant politics, and, as a result, is far less maddening, far more enjoyable, than his other films. Propelled by a soundtrack containing much of the best popular music of its period, it chronicles the tribulations of a black family living in Brooklyn in the early 70s: Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), the schoolteacher mother; Woody (Delroy Lindo), the struggling-musician father; four sons (Carlton Williams, Sharif Rashed, Tse-Mach Washington and Christopher Knowings); and one daughter (Zelda Harris). It is from the point of view of the latter, Troy, that we see most of the story. There isn't much in the way of a plot. The script's big benefit is that it's loose and openly structured, allowing Lee plenty of opportunity for the kind of long, free-form scenes he's best at. The opening title sequence is Lee at his best--his camera drifts around the street, watching the kids play, and the gently varied editing rhythms draw us into this raucous but appealing world. The depictions of clamorous family life are wonderfully sentiment-free. All the constantly shifting alliances, the angling for attention and advantage, the cruelty and falseness and thievery of childhood are wittily captured, so that the scenes in which familial love overwhelms self-interest are all the more touching. I don't know if I've ever seen a film with more excellent performances by child actors. The last time I can remember group scenes of children ringing this true was in Alan Parker's Shoot the Moon in 1982, and Crooklyn has more and larger groups. Even among the squabbling kids on the stoop, you can't find one who sounds like he or she is speaking by rote. Zelda Harris' Troy is a full, rounded character.
Among the adults, Delroy Lindo, memorable as West Indian Archie in Malcolm X, is excellent again as the affectionate Woody, whose lovability sometimes subverts his wife's attempts at discipline. Lindo's best scene is probably the one in which Woody must tell his upstairs tenants that they're without electricity because he was unable to pay the bill. His deep embarrassment is quite touching. Carolyn is a less-developed character, and she would seem overly idealized if it weren't for Lee's decision to use Woodard, just possibly the best current American film actress of her age, in the part (if Lee is a misogynist, as has often and justifiably been charged, you'd never know it from the way he presents women in this film). Woodard always balances humor, intensity and accessibility in equal parts, and if she never gets the chance to cut loose here, she also keeps Carolyn individual, never letting her turn into a symbol of perfect motherhood, which could easily have happened. It seems as if, in each of his films, Lee attempts at least one experimental effect--like the gliding pedestrians in Jungle Fever--that is jarringly wrong. In Crooklyn, his direction has a naturalistic precision, as well as a couple of effectively surreal moments, as when two glue-sniffers (one played by Spike himself) float down the street upside down, or when Troy levitates away from pursuers in her dreams.
But there's an appallingly misconceived stylistic choice in the portion of the film in which Troy goes to stay with relatives in suburban Virginia: The alien nature of the environment is suggested by squeezing the perspective throughout the entire segment.
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You can recognize what the director's trying for here, but somebody should have told him that all it looks like is a projector malfunction, and that it's gratingly hard to watch. But this is the only important misstep in an otherwise delightful movie.