Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spike Lee Reminisces about his Youth in Crooklyn

Spike Lee takes a nostalgic trip back to his childhood in this touching semi-autobiographical film about the struggles of a Brooklyn family in the early 1970s.

Crooklyn (1994) is probably Lee’s warmest and most sentimental film. It’s a big departure from the films he typically directs. His films usually address controversial subjects and are politically charged. In this semi-autobiographical film, the director slows down the pace a bit and takes a warm look back at his youth in Brooklyn, New York during the early 1970s. It's a simple, straightforward story with no social or political agenda to be found. Much of the film has the same slice-of-life appeal as his landmark film Do The Right Thing but sans the controversial themes. As in the Do The Right Thing, most of Crooklyn takes place in one neighborhood and focuses on the events and residents in that area.

The film immediately draws the viewer in with its exhilarating opening sequence. It opens with a vibrant scene on a block in a multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood where numerous children are out playing; some kids are jump-roping, some are playing stickball and others are playing hopscotch among other lively games and fun activities. The block is alive with youthful energy. And the opening is set to the gorgeous strains of "People Make The World Go Round" by the Stylistics. Lee has always had a good ear and eye for setting scenes to music, and this is a perfect example of it.

The film's protagonist is ten-year-old Troy Carmichael (played by Zelda Harris). Troy is a spirited and outspoken young girl. Growing up in Brooklyn and living with her four rowdy brothers has given her a thick skin and made her tough. She can dish it out as well as any of her brothers. Troy is in constant battle with her oldest brother Clinton (Carlton Williams), who is as hardheaded as they come. Clinton loves to tease and bully his little sister for fun when he's not watching his beloved New York Knicks play on television. Clinton is clearly based on Spike Lee, right down to the slight build, big glasses and the filmmaker’s devotion to the Knicks. Troy devises different ways to get back at her older brother. On one occasion, she uses his prize collection of buffalo nickels to buy ice scream for herself and her friend. Harris does an excellent job of portraying the plucky young Troy. Lee was so impressed with her work in Crooklyn that he later cast in his 1998 film He Got Game.

Critically acclaimed actress Alfre Woodard plays Troy's no-nonsense mother Carolyn. She is the parent who lays down the law in the dysfunctional household. Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X , Get Shorty) plays Troy's father, Woody, who is much more lenient with the children. Woody's an unemployed jazz musician who's constantly at the piano composing his original music. He refuses to play popular music (which he thinks is mostly garbage) any longer and only focuses on his own music. Woody's stubborn refusal to play the type of music that could bring more money to the household upsets Carolyn, as the family's forced to get by on her salary as a teacher and the rent from their border. This and his leniency with the children cause acrimony between the couple, and they are separated for a short time.

Troy Experiences Culture Shock When She Visits Her Relatives In Virginia

Towards the end of the film, Lee shifts gears and has Troy visit her relatives in a Virginia suburb for a month. The move from Brooklyn to a Virginia suburb is a huge culture shock for Troy. Initially, she hates everything about the South and her Southern relatives but eventually starts to warm up to her surroundings. She learns to appreciate the slower and quieter way of life during her stay, and she develops a close friendship with her young cousin Viola (Patriece Nelson). It was a good idea to have Troy visit Virginia, as it provides a nice contrast to the chaotic scenes in Brooklyn. And Frances Foster is a hoot as Troy's flighty Aunt Song.

This film has a number of memorable scenes. One highlight has all five kids dancing along with the Soul Train dancers on TV as they groove down the legendary Soul Train line. Another great scene has Troy and her friends making fun of each others' hairstyles while sitting on the stoop in front of her house. The scene is at once funny and touching and will no doubt remind many viewers of the silly arguments they would get into when they were kids. In addition, there is an extremely funny scene in which Carolyn wakes up all the kids at four in the morning to clean up the mess they left in the kitchen.

Oddball Characters

The film has an array of oddball characters, including the family's annoying, weird neighbor Tony Eyes (David Patrick Kelly), whose house is a pigsty and reeks so bad that his neighbors are constantly complaining, and the wild-eyed, glue-sniffing Snuffy played by Lee.

Talented Young Newcomers Do A Great Job Playing The Carmichael Children

The young actors who play Troy's siblings do a marvelous job. In addition to Carlton Williams, they include Sharif Rashed, Tse-Mach Washington and Christopher Knowings. Also, Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo are terrific as the Carmichael parents. Both bring strong, nuanced performances to their respective roles. The remainder of the cast is also quite good.

Highly Entertaining Film From Start To Finish

Crooklyn is an underrated gem and a nice change of pace for Lee. It's poignant and funny as well as consistently entertaining. Some may complain about the near wall-to-wall music in the film, but Lee utilizes it so well in setting up scenes that it doesn't feel at all intrusive. Lee, his sister Joie Lee, and their brother Cinqué collaborated on the film's great screenplay. Lee should reminisce more often on film.

Crooklyn at Amazon

Related blog entry: Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing Revisited

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