Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/23/07.
Following the 1992 historical, epic bio-pic on Malcolm X, Spike Lee took a break from making his cinematic epic that some considered to be his best work. After the break, Lee decided to make a low-key yet thoughtful film about family life in the 1970s in Brooklyn titled Crooklyn. Directed by Spike Lee that he co-wrote with sister Joie and brother Cinque, Crooklyn tells the story of a family trying to survive through money problems and troubles in their neighborhood from the perspective of a little girl growing into womanhood. Starring Delroy Lindo, Alfre Woodard, David Patrick Kelly, Isaiah Washington, Zelda Harris, Joie Lee, Bokeem Woodbine, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Spike Lee. Crooklyn is a thoughtful, personal feature film from the always prolific Spike Lee.
It's the 1970s in Brooklyn as kids play around the streets and stoops of the Brooklyn neighborhood. A mix of African-American, whites, and Puerto Ricans, it's a place filled with joy and bits of trouble. For the Carmichaels led by musician Woody (Delroy Lindo) and his teacher wife Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), it's a place where they raise their rowdy kids that consists of four boys and a young girl named Troy (Zelda Harris). Troy is a tomboy with an attitude who often calls bad names to other kids and have spats with her brothers including her eldest, Knicks-loving Clinton (Carlton Williams). While the rest of the brothers including the hungry Wendell (Sharif Rashed), the middle child Nate (Christopher Knowings), and the youngest child Joseph (Tse-Mach Washington) are rowdy and rambunctious, the family is still in a loving household. While the boys hang out with adults that include Puerto Rican Tommy La La (Jose Zuniga), Vic (Isaiah Washington), and Richard (Bokeem Woodbine). They often get into spats with the reclusive Tony Eyes (David Patrick Kelly), who lives with dogs and his place always stink. The boys are always supported by their mother and their neighbors into the spats with Tony though the boys do throw trash in his place.
While the family continue their daily lives, money has become tight as Woody chooses to make his own music rather than playing traditional pop. Woody’s decision only troubles the family's financial situation as Carolyn has to make more money teaching summer school. The family dysfunctions that included Clinton's love for the Knicks over everything else finally causes a breakdown in which, Woody is forced to leave for a brief period time as he lives with his brother Brown (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Troy meanwhile, continues her rowdy ways as she attempts to shoplift but the store's manager Hector (Manny Perez) gives her a life lesson into stealing. The lesson doesn’t last long as Troy steals from her brother to buy ice cream for herself and one of her friends. After returning to make amends with Carolyn, Woody decides to take the family out on a road trip as a distraction to deal with the family's ongoing financial problems. Even to the point where they had to live on food stamps which was embarrassing to Troy.
Going down to Virginia to visit relatives in Uncle Clem (Norman Matlock), Aunt Song (Frances Foster), and their daughter Viola (Patriece Nelson). The real intention was to give Troy a new atmosphere as she is to stay with her relatives for the summer. The visit only alienated Troy despite Aunt Song's well-meaning behavior and a friend in Viola. Back in Brooklyn, the family gets up from their financial problems with help from Uncle Brown and Aunt Maxine (Joie Lee). Troy returns with a new look only to learn of some harrowing family problems. Troy realizes that her role as the only other woman in her dysfunctional yet loving family has to grow while having to deal with the worst. Even the boys have to face new troubles where they learn what is important.
Inspired by their youth growing up in the 70s, Crooklyn was a change of pace and style to the epic-biography of Lee's previous film, Malcolm X. This time around, Lee and his siblings create probably their most accessible feature to date. While the film lacks a strong plot and is a bit episodic, it's only to convey the sense of realism and nostalgia Lee wanted to show about the 1970s. At times, there are moments that are funny. There's moments of real, family drama, and there's even moments of heartbreak and tragedy. Yet, there's an optimism in the film while it's largely done in the perspective of the character of Troy. Troy is obviously inspired by Joie Lee, who wrote the film's original story. Her story is about a young girl growing into womanhood while dealing with the realities of life.
Lee's direction is wonderfully observant and atmospheric in conveying the times while he goes for style in the sequence involving the world of Aunt Song where on full-screen, the film looks cropped. It's to convey the sense of alienation of Troy while contrasting the fullness of what Brooklyn is back in the 70s before crack and gangs came in. Plus, Lee's approach towards the kids reveal the loss innocence of the times when those kids were playing outside and having fun rather than doing something destructive. While it's not a perfect film, it's honesty and personal touch still makes it an enjoyable, heartwarming film.
Cinematographer Arthur Jafa does excellent work in capturing the beauty and atmosphere of Brooklyn with some wonderful shots conveying the look of the road in the sky. Longtime production designer Wynn Thomas and art director Chris Shriver adds to the authentic touch of Brooklyn with the look of products of what they looked like back in the 70s to the furniture in the home of the Carmichaels. Longtime costume designer Ruth E. Carter also adds to the film's authentic look with bellbottoms, shirts, and all sorts of colorful clothes people wore in the 70s. Editor Barry Alexander Brown does some wonderful cuts to convey the structure and feel of the film without being too slow or too fast despite the episodic nature of the film. Sound designer Skip Leivsay also adds a nice touch to the atmosphere to reveal the sense of joy and nostalgia of Brooklyn in the 70s. Longtime composer Terence Blanchard brings a wonderful, dramatic jazz and orchestral score to present the drama and joy of the film. The film's soundtrack is wonderfully amazing with great cuts from Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and many more.
The film's wonderfully diverse cast includes several memorable small performances and appearances from Bokeem Woodbine, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Joie Lee, Norman Matlock, Patriece Nelson, Manny Perez, Jose Zuniga, and Isaiah Washington. Cameos from RuPaul as a woman dancing in a shop with the store owner while Spike Lee and N. Jeremi Duru are hilarious as two, glue-sniffers trying to get money from the kids. David Patrick Kelly is excellent as the irritable neighbor Tony Eyes and a small part as a man named Jim. Frances Forster is wonderful as the well-meaning Aunt Song with Southern beliefs and manner. Tse-Mach Washington is great as the youngest brother Joseph while Christopher Knowings has a great scene that involved black-eyed peas. Sharif Rashed is funny as the hungry Wendell while Carlton Williams is great as Spike's alter-ego Clinton for his love of the Knicks including a great scene that involves the conflict of what was more important than the Knicks.
Zelda Harris gives an exhilarating performance as the no-nonsense, all-attitude tomboy Troy who brings such joy and energy to her performance. Harris really shines in the film's comical and emotional moments that gives her character some wonderful development. Delroy Lindo is brilliant as the struggling yet charismatic Woody who tries to hold the family together in all of its problems as he serves as the glue of sorts despite his need for artistic recognition. Finally, there's Alfre Woodard in a knock-out performance as the no-nonsense Carolyn. Woodard brings all kinds of emotions as the stern, tough, and caring mother who tries to calm everything down and make sure all the kids behave themselves. Woodard alongside Harris, is the performance to watch who shows how a woman plays her role in a family that is dysfunctional but loving.
While Crooklyn maybe considered as a minor film from Spike Lee, his personal touch and semi-biographical take really adds a sense of nuance and care to this film. With a great cast and a story that revels in nostalgia and realism, this is really one of Lee's premier films. While it's also his most optimistic and positive, it's also a reminder of how far Lee is willing to stretch his talents with the help of his siblings. In the end, for a film that reminds everyone about family and the good times that was the 1970s, Crooklyn is the film to go see.
Spike Lee Films: (She’s Gotta Have It) - (School Daze) - Do the Right Thing - Mo' Better Blues - Jungle Fever - (Malcolm X) - (Clockers) - (Girl 6) - (Get on the Bus) - 4 Little Girls - (He Got Game) - Freak - Summer of Sam - (The Original Kings of Comedy) - (Bamboozled) - (A Huey P. Newton Story) - 25th Hour - (Jim Brown: All-American) - (She Hate Me) - (Inside Man) - (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) - (Miracle at St. Anna) - (Kobe Doin’ Work) - (Passing Strange) - (If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise) - (Red Hook Summer) - Bad 25 - Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - (Oldboy (2013 film)) - (Da Blood of Jesus) - (Chi Raq) - Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall