CROOKLYN (1994)

  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Writers: Joie Susannah Lee, Cinqué Lee, and Spike Lee
  • Starring: Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams, Sharif Rashed, Chris Knowings, Tse-Mach Washington, Spike Lee, Patrice Nelson, Frances Foster, Joie Susannah Lee, and Vondie Curtis-Hall
  • Accolades: Shown at 1994 San Francisco International Film Festival, 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Without having done any research, I pretty much assumed Crooklyn to be a movie about criminals in Brooklyn, which wouldn’t be too far outside of director Spike Lee’s usual wheelhouse. It does take place in Brooklyn, but in reality the movie is a semiautobiographical story from the childhoods of Lee and his siblings (his brother and sister co-wrote the screenplay). Beyond this, the title is not really explained. There is a story here, mostly a coming-of-age story of the only girl (Zelda Harris) in a family with several brothers in the 1970s. But it is told less in the usual Hollywood manner than as a series of vignettes that, in the end, add up to something. For about an hour, it’s not really apparent that there’s any story at all, more a series of scenes.

Watching Crooklyn, I was left with a sense that, on the one hand, Spike Lee had a total, effortless mastery of his craft, to the point where he can do strange things that most directors wouldn’t think about. During one sequence where Harris’ character, Troy, is sent to live with relatives in the South, her sense of alienation is portrayed by heavy use of an anamorphic lens that makes everyone seem stretched. Universal Pictures had to put a disclaimer on the movie because audiences thought there was something wrong with the projection. On the other hand, if this movie is meant as “warmly nostalgic,” as many of the reviews, both contemporary and more recent, seem to suggest, I seem completely immune to that nostalgia. The one exception to this is probably the soundtrack, which is a series of major and minor hits from the time and takes a more outsized role in this movie than most.

For me, most of the scenes play almost entirely as humans being absolutely awful to each other. It certainly feels like a realistic portrayal of family life, which I will admit has a great deal of value in portraying a specific thing in a specific time and place. I am also not going to tell people how to parent, or to say that Alfre Woodard’s portrayal of the mother Carolyn somehow depicts a “bad mother,” even though she is constantly berating and threatening her children over seemingly minor transgressions. But I will say that (a) I am very glad that she bears no resemblance to my own mother, and (b) that an overwhelming portion of this movie feels given over to people shouting at each other, kids telling on each other, people feeling one inch away from physical violence against each other. The environment, to me, an outsider, feels deeply toxic rather than something to be nostalgic for.

Nor would I blame Carolyn for any problems in this house, which seems to exist in a perpetual state of chaotic angst. The father, Woody (played by the great Delroy Lindo), is a musician who deeply resents Carolyn’s constant pleas for him to make more money. In a desperate attempt to keep the peace and end the constant screaming, he occasionally tries to step in and say, “maybe we should let the kid watch the Knicks game even though it’s a school night,” or “maybe we shouldn’t make the kid eat peas even though they literally make him throw up,” acts of marital treason Carolyn clearly finds deeply offensive. He never seems smart enough to realize ahead of time how she will react, and it leads to even more problems.

Partway through the movie, there is that sojourn to southern suburbia, which feels like an entirely separate world. Troy clashes with her cousin Viola (Patrice Nelson), and “Aunt Song” (Frances Foster) makes things much worse through generally being unwilling to meet anyone halfway. She takes out Troy’s braids, an act Troy sees as a deep betrayal (and it is not a coincidence that Carolyn also has braids), but while she’s very flighty I find it difficult to find living with her “worse” than living with Carolyn. While Carolyn threatens to knock people into next week any time they disobey her, when Cousin Viola responds to an instruction with, “You can’t tell me what to do!,” Aunt Song quails, “Lord have mercy!” and leaves the room. Nor does Aunt Song’s yappie Pomeranian Queenie deserve what happens to her, a death under mysterious circumstances that ends with the dog’s body flying through the air when Aunt Song tries to open a sofa bed. It is unclear what happened to the dog, but it seems like the kids might have something to do with it, and the movie is strangely forgiving about this frankly psychotic act.

Crooklyn has been described as a “Spike Lee movie for people who don’t like Spike Lee movies,” and perhaps this is true. For example, this is one of only two of Lee’s films to receive a less restrictive rating in the US than R, along with Malcolm X. But as someone who does like Spike Lee movies, I have little desire to revisit Crooklyn again the way I might, say, Do the Right Thing. It certainly feels “true,” in a way many, many movies do not, and that is a great achievement. But I completely lack nostalgia for many of the things this movie clearly has it for. Can’t people just… be nice to each other? Maybe it’s just that kids and I tend to rub each other wrong way.

One thought on “CROOKLYN (1994)

  1. I saw this in the movie theater way back when and remember liking it at the time. It wasn’t until now that I learned that the stretched faces were supposed to be on purpose, so thanks for that tidbit!

    Liked by 1 person

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