Say this about the new Spike Lee movie which recalls his childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the 1970s: Disney it's not. Lee kicks bogus Hollywood uplift out of Crooklyn with a fuck-that-shit vengeance. More surprisingly, he takes his infamous male ego out of overdrive. The film's Carmichael family may be monopolized by men: dad Woody (Delroy Lindo) and four rusty-butt sons, Clinton (Carlton Williams), Wendell (Sharif Rashid), Nate (Chris Knowings) and Joseph (TseMach Washington). But it's mom Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) and daughter Troy (Zelda Harris, 9, in a star-making portrayal) who keep this family in line. Troy slams a bully — Lee, sporting an Afro, has the role — upside the head with a bat when he picks on her baby brother. It's through Troy that Lee tells his story. On his seven-feature resume, there are films that are more ambitious (Malcolm X), confrontational (Do the Right Thing) and erotic (She's Gotta Have It). But the fullness of characterization in Crooklyn shows a new maturity in Lee. Troy isn't the only one who comes of age.
Family is the film's subject and its soul. Lee's siblings Joie and CinquT (brother David was the set photographer) collaborated with him on the script, shunning structured narrative for a loosely connected series of vignettes. Except for a few static, overdrawn scenes, Crooklyn is rich in funny and touching entertainment. The Lees grew up in a racially mixed Brooklyn neighborhood that is vividly re-created right down to the stoops and street games. In contrast with the recent hood films of drugs and drive-bys set to a rap beat, Crooklyn shows us a connected, lively place where shoplifting and glue sniffing constitute the major offenses. But this is no cozy nostalgia trip. The film is really about a family under siege.
Like Lee's mother, who died of cancer in 1976, Carolyn is a teacher who supports her family while her husband struggles, as Lee's father did, to build a career as a jazz musician and composer. Woodard and Lindo are superb at detailing the ways financial tension undercuts a close relationship. Their arguments devastate Troy, who tries to make peace between the parents she adores. Harris' Troy ranks with Mary Badham's Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the most affecting child performances ever captured on film. You never catch Harris acting. But the life changes that rush her into adulthood are etched on her face.
Lee's direction is wittily nimble at showing the kids at play. Skinny, contentious, Knicks-crazy Clinton — he is Lee to a T — rules the TV watching. He leads his siblings in a hilarious sing along with the Partridge Family that zaps the bland right out of "I Woke Up in Love This Morning." But the white cultural artifacts soon give way to Soul Train, ads for Afrosheen and 70s sounds from the Staple Singers to the Jackson 5. Troy's visit to white-worshipping Maryland relatives only intensifies her affection for Crooklyn (Carolyn's fond nickname), where black consciousness is on the rise.
Lee indulges in some unnecessary camera trickery with the help of cinematographer Arthur Jafa (in for Lee regular Ernest Dickerson). The Maryland scenes are distorted like reflections in a fun-house mirror to underscore Troy's discomfort. And Troy's dreams of flying away while being pursued by local glue sniffers is a Peter Pan gimmick that cheapens the storytelling. Crooklyn is most telling when it stays most spare.
Tragedy comes to the Carmichael family, but even then, Lee shuns tear-jerking. Clinton doesn't comfort his sister with sentiments by Hallmark; he sits by her and awkwardly intertwines their fingers like a game, providing the only closeness he can. In an era when the gross gimmicks of Home Alone have come to typify growing up, Crooklyn celebrates what holds a home together. Through Harris we can see Troy's character blossom. She still feels hurt and frustration; she's angry at a pushy, well-meaning aunt (played by Joie Lee). But Troy does more than take responsibility; she learns to take pride in it. Near the end, standing watch over her family on her mother's beloved stoop, Troy shows the grit the Lees prize most about Crooklyn. This remarkable movie will haunt you for a good long time.