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City Life, Family Strife

Spike Lee returns to old haunts, and old ways, in Crooklyn

What is it about movies that causes them, or at least their essential ideas, to so often appear in matched sets? Until a few weeks ago, I had never seen a '70s-era black film that featured a child being sent out of the city to spend the summer with the family's better-off relatives. Then it was The Inkwell, and now we have Spike Lee's Crooklyn.

Not that these films are twins. Cousins would be more like it. Crooklyn is much more personal and idiosyncratic than The Inkwell, which impressed in large part because director Matty Rich managed to make good cinema out of good intentions.

And while you can accuse Spike Lee of plenty here, being weighed down by good intentions -- that is, feeling the need to provide a positive, post-ghetto racial image -- isn't one of them. With Malcolm X behind him, Lee is apparently satisfied that he's done his share, and for the first time in years he seems to feel free to cut loose.

When Do the Right Thing was released, Lee was criticized for not including a dope dealer in his movie's sweltering neighborhood. He defended himself, a bit testily, by saying films about white corporate America weren't obliged to show coked-up yuppies. But here Lee puts down his guard and, in his funniest performance since She's Gotta Have It, himself plays a glue-sniffing petty thief. His performance doesn't call for much more than growing an Afro and keeping a goofy, blissed-out smile on his face, but that smile and the dreamy sequences that surround it -- Lee's character, Snuffy, floating through the ether or, in a happily cheesy bit of trick photography, walking upside-down through a right-side-up world -- come as a palpable delight.

Snuffy is only a bit player in Crooklyn, one of the characters who populate the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in which the film's main subjects, the Carmichael family, live. The film opens with such a loosely defined focus that for some time we can't be sure exactly whom it's about. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa's camera floats above the Carmichaels' block, easing from one character to another so effortlessly and with so few look-here markers that it's some time before we can be sure whom it's targeting. And once we finally get inside the Carmichael household, peopled by mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), father Woody (Delroy Lindo) and their five children, the family interaction is so chaotic that maybe a quarter of the film has passed before we realize that its point of view belongs essentially to Troy (newcomer Zelda Harris), who at ten is the Carmichaels' eldest daughter.

At times, Lee seems to be making another topical film, the topic this time being the problems of the black family and the tricky relationships between hard-working, long-suffering black women and their marginalized men. But he's also trying to do something that's at once easier and more difficult.

What's the easy part? Nostalgia. Here Lee has completely given himself over to nostalgia for the '70s. The movie doesn't take a step without the appropriate disco-era song. The dope fiends are more neighborhood bullies than menaces to society (a self-confident ten-year-old such as Troy can easily take care of Snuffy). And much of the kids' street culture is ageless, or rather, it belongs to that amorphous prehistory from before the video game. I'd almost forgotten that tops once spun upon the earth.

But straight nostalgia is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and Lee is no scoundrel. He's complicated his nostalgia enough to keep it interesting. That's the difficult part: the story on which the nostalgia is hung. The narrative has the arc of traditional family melodrama -- sibling rivalry, feuding parents, one child's self-discovery, a death in the family -- but Lee tells it from an unusual distance that keeps the tale from sounding too familiar.

In fact, at times the tale doesn't even feel like a tale. It feels like vignettes from a life. For about an hour we go from scene to scene with little sense of development. The Carmichael kids are yelling at each other or their friends almost every second they're on screen, and their fights are always over the same childhood profundities -- one boy's refusal to eat his peas, another brother's refusal to share the Trix. But considering how much it repeats itself, through this hour the film stays

surprisingly alive.
That's because Lee's gift for staging a scene is in full evidence. Moments that would be unbearably precious with other directors percolate with life. In a bit that could easily have been a throwaway but instead is the most wonderful screen moment of the year, young Troy goes into the neighborhood grocery to shop for dinner and finds its stubby Puerto Rican owner locked in a sensual dance with a black man/woman (played by RuPaul) who towers above him. As they undulate, apparently on the verge of spontaneous combustion, Troy looks on, not in wonder or fear, but in learning. Go to the grocery, learn a lesson in life's free-flowing complexity.

I was prepared to happily see one scene after another of this type, but ultimately the story does kick in, and it kicks in with family strife. Carolyn carries the burden of the family finances, while her earnest but underemployed jazz musician of a husband carries mostly the burden of his dreams. Carolyn is left with both the short and the heavy end of the stick, and the film shows her in a strange state, constantly screaming and punishing, but somehow doing so with love's gleam in her eye. Carolyn could easily have been a shrew, but the marvelous Woodard keeps her human; likewise, Lindo's dignity keeps his Woody from being pathetic.

But they fight all the time, as do the kids, so when Troy is sent to visit her cousin in Virginia, it's with the sense that somebody's sanity is at stake. Though his story demands it, Lee seems to resent having to leave Brooklyn, so he tries to jazz up the Virginia sequence with a cornball camera trick. Since Troy's annoying aunt sees life through a warped perspective, Lee films her world through a distorting fun-house lens. It's an idea, but a pretty sophomoric one.

That's just one of Lee's miscues. When tragedy strikes the Carmichaels, Lee keeps us at an almost Bergman-like distance. Maybe he thought the movie's blows would hurt more if we didn't see them coming, but instead it makes the film's swipes at drama feel perfunctory. Too, there is an ugly side to Crooklyn. Lee allows his mean streak to surface in the children, and for the most part that feels like refreshing candor. Yes, kids can be this nasty. But when the object of their venom turns out to be both the only white and the only homosexual in the film (RuPaul, god-like, transcends all categories), the humor feels like bile. The ugliness isn't restricted to whites. The Southern aunt is judged harshly for her lack of cool, and a joke Troy plays at her expense is the meanest thing a screen kid has done since Macaulay Culkin's antics in The Good Son. And Lee plays this bit of nastiness for laughs.

So. We have a mixed bag in Crooklyn, but one that's well worth opening, especially in this dreariest of movie seasons.

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