Wednesday September 13, 1995
Playing under the opening credits, a series of stark images sets the mood for "Clockers," the disturbing movie Spike Lee has made from Richard Price's best-selling novel. These careful re-creations of crime scene photos of drug-related homicides show young black men sprawled in cars, tossed face down in dumpsters, motionless on sidewalks. Though not as horrific as the real thing, the pictures are grim enough to convey the message the rest of "Clockers" underlines: Don't even think about getting comfortable while this movie is on the screen.
"Clockers," Lee's eighth feature in nine years, demonstrates how accomplished a filmmaker he has become, securely in control of plot, actors and imagery. And because it is so much the film he wanted to make, "Clockers" illustrates another, less audience-friendly aspect of Lee's technique that is not always noticed, his particular combination of emotional distance and moral instruction.
Although other directors tend to make films because they want to tell stories or explore character, neither of these purposes feels paramount with Lee. He directs, or so it seems, to make points and deliver messages, and he has turned Price's novel into a cold, angry, unsettling motion picture about a cold, pitiless world.
Lee doesn't really want us to root too hard for anyone, even Strike, "Clockers' " young protagonist (effectively played by newcomer Mekhi Phifer). Getting viewers to bond to any one personality is too easy an out to his way of thinking. Lee is not after empathetic hearts who bleed for the deserving poor, he wants us to look at the larger picture and realize how deep the problem is, how much society has to change before any of us are allowed the luxury of getting off the hook through personal caring.
Strike, known to his mother and no one else as Ronald Dunham, is the nearly 20-year-old head of a crew of youthful dealers who sit on the benches outside a public housing project in Brooklyn (changed from the novel's New Jersey setting) and do nothing but dispense crack cocaine.
So conscientious he's developed stomach problems (which he sporadically treats with doses of a convenience store chocolate drink), Strike has become a particular favorite of his boss, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), a neighborhood Fagin who both cares about his kids and coldly exploits their willingness to sell crack, "the world's greatest product."
Quite literally losing the stomach for his work, hassled by the local police and a housing authority cop nicknamed Andre the Giant (Keith David), Strike is desperate to "get off the benches." So when Rodney talks one night about a drug rival named Darryl Adams and how grateful he would be if the guy were gone, Strike understands. After a quick stop at a neighborhood bar, where he runs into his hard-working, family man older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), Strike heads out armed and dangerous.
Though we don't see it on screen, Darryl Adams is murdered that night, but to the surprise of everyone in the neighborhood, straight-arrow Victor, of all people, almost immediately confesses to the crime. He is, of course, arrested, but no one who knows anything thinks he did it, including homicide detective Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) and his especially unbelieving partner Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel).
A cop for just about as long as Strike has been alive, Klein views the kid simply as "a known scumbag." And the longer he investigates Victor's personal history, the less likely he thinks it is that the older Dunham pulled the trigger. Convinced that the brothers are pulling some kind of scam on him, he takes Victor's confession as a deep personal affront and begins to put so much pressure on Strike that the young man's world threatens to unravel one strand at a time.
Though Lee has shifted the novel's focus from Rocco to Strike, what "Clockers" is particularly interested in is illustrating these two universes in collision, the dark spectacle of cynical, casually racist cops who joke about death battling both physically and psychologically with the kids who are inevitably the victims of violence.
What this brooding, unsettling film (written by Price and Lee) does most successfully is re-create the desperation and hopelessness of Strike's life on the benches and off it, forcefully showing how trapped he is between competing antagonists who care about no agenda but their own.
Even though Strike is allowed a few human touches, like his love of trains and his mentoring of a younger neighborhood kid named Tyrone (Pee Wee Love), the portrait of a pitiless society and the film's fierce frontal attacks on drugs ("You are selling your own people death") and shootings ("This ain't no TV violence, real guns kill") have a more lasting impact than any personal story.
Helping make these points is as strong a cast as Lee has yet worked with. As antagonists who confront each other through Strike, both Keitel and especially Lee veteran Delroy Lindo give strong and chilling performances. Also remarkable is Tom Byrd as Errol Barnes, Rodney's heroin-addicted, AIDS-ravaged enforcer, yet another in Lee's gallery of terrifying victims of drugs.
What problems "Clockers" has stem from Lee's lack of interest in story for its own sake. He encourages cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed to indulge in distracting camera tricks and doesn't seem to care that the dialogue in a critical scenes is difficult to understand or that the film's ending has a hollow feeling. Because, whether anyone likes it or not, whatever happens to Strike does not compel him as much as the enduring factors that put the young man on the benches in the first place.
Clockers, 1995. R, for strong graphic violence, strong language and drug content. A 40 Acres and a Mule production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Spike Lee. Producers Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Jon Kilik. Executive producers Rosalie Swedlin, Monty Ross. Screenplay by Richard Price and Spike Lee, based on the book by Richard Price. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed. Editor Sam Pollard. Costumes Ruth Carter. Music Terence Blanchard. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director Ina Mayhew. Set decorator Debra Schutt. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. Harvey Keitel as Rocco Klein. John Turturro as Larry Mazilli. Delroy Lindo as Rodney Little. Mekhi Phifer as Strike. Isaiah Washington as Victor Dunham. Keith David as Andre the Giant.