Crooklyn: Spike Lee in Light Mood?

Every filmmaker, including the ambitious and often controversial Spike Lee, deserves one film in his career that’s lighter and less charged with politics, even if it’s disorganized and inconsequential.

In Crooklyn, his first film since the overly ambitious, though box-office disappointment Malcolm X, Lee goes back to his childhood and reveals a different side of his diverse talent. Overall, Crooklyn is uneven: some scenes are touching, while others are funny, but the changes in narrative and tone are too abrupt. It’s a story of one, very special African-American family in Brooklyn in the l970s. Alfre Woodard stars as Carolyn Carmichael, the loving but careworn mother who struggles to make ends meet for her unemployed husband (Delroy Lindo) and their five children. Her ten-year old daughter Troy (newcomer Zelda Harris) has her hands full keeping up with her four obnoxious brothers. But as crisis after crisis inflicts the household, Troy and the other members must rely on each other to face the wild joys and shared sorrows of everyday life.

Spike Lee and two of his siblings, Joie and Cinque, collaborated on the screenplay, which is based on Joie’s story. It’s the seventh movie directed by Lee, meant to evoke, as he said, “a time when young urban African-American children were motivated primarily by two things: Television and sugar.”

Lee, whose earlier films have taken probing views of such controversial problems as interracial romance (Jungle Fever), urban violence (Do the Right Thing) and radical politics (Malcolm X), now uses his considerable talents as visual storyteller to convey the daily lives of one family in a particular time and place.

“As a black filmmaker,” Lee says, “I think it’s important to expand the subject matter of the films we do. As a group, we’ve gotten into a rut telling the same story again and again–the hip-hop, drug, gangsta rap, urban, inner-city movie.” Concerned with portraying–and doing justice to–the totality of the African-American experience, Lee thinks that audiences wish to see more than the black inner-city movies. He therefore hopes that Crooklyn will be “a start in that direction.”

Lee claims that ever since his first (and in my view his best) film, She’s Gotta Have It, in l986, people have been asking him, “Spike, when are you gonna make a movie I can take my children to” Crooklyn is not exactly a traditional family movie in the Disney mold, but its multi-generational plot is likely to appeal to children and their parents.

Joie Lee says that she had always loved “films that look at the world through a child’s eyes, such as Bob Reiner’s Stand By Me or the Brazilian masterpiece Pixote. This time, she felt they could offer a fresh perspective by telling a coming-of-age story from the point of view of a young black girl; most black films–and American films in general–have centered on boys.

Loosely based on the story of their own experience growing up in Brooklyn in the l970s, the script took a life of its own during the development process. While they all had fond memories of the time and place, they decided to focus on the relationship of the mother and daughter. The filmmakers’ goal was to pay homage to the experience of childhood, without trying to romanticize or glamorize it.

Most of the action takes place within a single block in Brooklyn, where the Carmichael family lives. The father is an idealized jazz musician, who staunchly refuses to adapt to changing musical tastes. In fact, his wife Carolyn can’t decide who needs more parenting, her children or her husband. Troy, the 10-year old daughter, does her best to help out, while her brothers–Clinton (Carlton Williams), Wendell (Sharif Rashid), Nate (Chris Knowings), and Joseph (TseMach Washington)–spend most of their long summer days watching TV and eating junk food.

Compared with the view of childhood one gets from the recent cycle of African-American films (Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, the upcoming Fresh), Crooklyn is both nostalgic and naive, looking with elegiac sadness at the past. This approach is probably a result of Lee’s maturation as a director and a person, his ability to step back and observe.

“I look back,” Lee says, “and I see a time when kids could have a lot more fun than they have today. I never had to worry about getting shot or in front of my house. The worst thing that could happen was that somebody might take your lunch money. Maybe you’d get a fat lip or black eye. But it was fists. Nobody was pulling an Uzi and spraying bullets.”

Fair enough, but I can’t wait for Spike Lee to get back to what he does best–controversial, disturbing, though-provoking films with a sensibility and style all his own. That said, even though Crooklyn is messy in parts and effective only in moments, it is a personal film in a way that the more accomplished Jungle Fever was not.