Thursday Editor’s Pick: Crooklyn (1994)

by on August 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs June 18 at Dusk at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Harbor View Lawn) [Program & Tix]
*Music at 6:00 by DJ Emch of Subatomic Sound System **FREE


Spike Lee’s Crooklyn plays to a home-borough audience tonight in Dumbo.
New York Magazine raves about this open-air venue:

If your schedule permits only one night of outdoor viewing this summer, make it the ‘Movies With a View’ series….It’s held on sloping, velvety hills beneath the glittering expanse of the Manhattan Bridge, with unfettered views of downtown serving as a backdrop to the giant screen. Further underscoring the event’s civility: There’s a free bicycle valet to ensure your ride is secure, and until the movie starts a D.J. spins a mellow opening set.



Writing on Crooklyn‘s release in the NY Times, Janet Maslin noted its unique place in Lee’s oeuvre:

Foremost among the stereotypes undone by Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” is the usual idea of a Spike Lee film. None of the edgy, confrontational drama or stark handsomeness of Mr. Lee’s other work distinguishes this noisy, crowded family story. Nor will “Crooklyn” spark debate on racial or sexual issues, as some of Mr. Lee’s films have. Instead, “Crooklyn” is so mild that it’s the first Spike Lee film with the potential to be turned into a television show. More important, it’s the first one to display real warmth of heart.


From some film makers, tender feelings are de rigueur; from others, they’re cloying or easy. From Mr. Lee, they’re nothing if not a surprise. Messy as the semiautobiographical “Crooklyn” often is, it succeeds in becoming a touching and generous family portrait, a film that exposes welcome new aspects of this director’s talent. The phrase “kinder, gentler Spike Lee” may not sit well with those who admire the film maker’s harder edges, but it does come to mind.


Stephen Hunter
for the Baltimore Sun:

Take “The Partridge Family” and set it to jazz; give it heart, soul, spunk and spice, let it roam and sizzle, let it get down, be funny and tender at once — and you have Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn.”


In fact, Lee continually evokes that weirdly resonant ’70s TV show, with its milky-white torrent of pieties, bad music and stingless, zingless humor, in contrast with his Partridges, a deliriously unkempt and boisterous crew of mischief-makers and ruckus-rousers — that is to say, a real family — called the Carmichaels, who spill through a brownstone in the Brooklyn of the same era. It’s set, in other words, in that Magic Innocent American Camelot before Danny Bonaduce went to jail!


Alan Bacchus pleas for Daily Film Dose:

After Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn is Spike Lee’s next best fiction film, a nearly forgotten stylish masterpiece. It’s a foot-tapping fast paced colourful jaunt through the memories of Spike Lee’s childhood in Brooklyn in the ‘70s. This is Spike Lee at his most inspired. Watching the technical bravura of Crooklyn is like watching a confident Martin Scorsese at the height of his creative abilities.


Like the more celebrated works of Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee uses pop music of the era to help drive the film. Wall-to-wall soul and funk anthems are sharply edited with the camera whips, pans, crawls, climbs and dances so the movement is in step with the bouncing soundtrack.


Lee brings in some rather serious plot turns in the third act, which threaten to put a damper on the whole affair. But even in death Lee finds humour and the joy of life. Perhaps this is why Crooklyn never became remembered as fondly as Boogie Nights, Goodfellas or even Do the Right Thing. However, even in the dark moments Crooklyn is a celebration of black urban youth, a rare commodity in cinema these days. Please go out and rediscover Spike Lee’s sorely under-appreciated Crooklyn.



Kent Jones in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1997):

Lee goes against the grain of the model well-rounded filmmaker, balanced between the thematic and the organic, between action and emotion. As an artist, he has firmly positioned himself midway between didacticism and dialectics. The didactic side is his tireless effort to keep the desires, frustrations, looming terrors, and class diversity among African-American men visible and viable within mainstream, i.e. white, i.e. racist American culture. (He is less interested in women but willing to keep his films democratically open to their viewpoints, as in the interminable but informative improvised discussion in Jungle Fever.) The dialectical side is the rigorous manner in which he breaks down and presents the warring components of American society, a pot in which nothing melts and everything congeals (he has never been interested in the currently fashionable Hollywood idea of “positive images of black people,” in which Wesley Snipes or Samuel L. Jackson is afforded the same golden opportunity as Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford to play the lead in idiotic action movies).


The ensuing tension, which catches characters in a grid between the personal and the societal, is palpable in every one of his films, from the throwaway Girl 6 to the hymnlike Get On the Bus, from the synthetically delicate She’s Gotta Have It to the grandiose Malcolm X, from the awful yet shaggily lovable School Daze to the magnificent Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. And that tension makes something odd but undeniably beautiful out of Crooklyn, an autobiographical reminiscence filtered through his sister Joie (he co-authored the script with her and brother Cinque) that all but denies the possibility of Proustian reverie in favor of a systematic and seemingly exhaustive survey of the focal points, obsessions, and imagery of an early Seventies African-American childhood. It’s a haunting film in which the action is interestingly dispersed across a more delicate visual palette than the burnished tones of Ernest Dickerson would have allowed (courtesy of Daughters of the Dust cinematographer Arthur Jafa), suggestive of public-school mural art.


As much as I admire Lee’s abilities as a dialectician, the most penetrating moments in his enormously complex cinema are the small, instinctive ones. There is a moment at the end of Crooklyn when three of the children are walking up a public staircase, two of them holding hands and the other straggling behind, and they are lackadaisically singing a song that is gently echoed by a harmonica in Terence Blanchard’s score. When they stop they wonder what they’ll be wearing to their mother’s funeral. The heartbreak-and the moment is heartbreaking like few moments in recent cinema-is in the high oblique angle that places the kids in a vast expanse of concrete, a detail that feels as if it comes straight from the filmmaker’s memory. And it’s in the stoic trudge up the steps, the sense of a burden that must be shouldered with dignity at all costs.



Desson Howe, writing in The Washington Post, said:

Spike Lee has a heedless, jazzy instinct. Unconstrained by compulsive discipline, almost arrogantly confident in his instincts, he blunders forward with jagged inspiration. Typically, “Crooklyn,” a quasi-autobiographical drama (scripted with siblings Joie and Cinque Lee) about a family in Brooklyn, shows the filmmaker at his best and worst.


But Lee’s best is so good — “Crooklyn” ranks among the finest work he’s done — it drowns out the negatives. Certainly the film has a messy, sometimes amateurish structure, and there’s one acutely jarring, overlong sequence in which the cameraman intentionally distorts the perspective so that the characters are squeezed into vertical caricatures.

But this wouldn’t be a Spike Lee movie without flaws (nor without an amusing Spike Lee cameo).


Roger Ebert, in The Chicago Sun-Times, noted the film’s feeling of realness:

Although the Lees say the movie should not be read as straight autobiography, some of the scenes have the directness and pain of real memory. There’s a night, for example, when the mother, exhausted and worried, tells the kids to clean up the kitchen before they go to bed. They do not, and in the middle of the night, in a rage, she awakens them and marches them downstairs. She has obviously reached some kind of a breaking point. The children are frightened and confused, and the movie doesn’t process their feelings into some kind of neat package; when things like that happen, they hurt, and are remembered. Later in the film, we discover some of the things that might have been on Carolyn’s mind.


And Lee talking about the film, in an interview in Ebony:

The film takes place in the early ‘70s, which is probably the last decade when children were allowed to be children. That’s when I was growing up, in the ‘70s. At that time kids never thought about being killed. Even in Brooklyn we didn’t have knives. There would be fights and you’d lose skin, but the next day you’d be alright.


crooklyn spike lee

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