Following his success with Malcolm X, Spike Lee turned the camera onto his own life with Crooklyn, a semi-autobiographical film co-written with two of his siblings that takes memories of a safer Brooklyn and making a love letter of sorts to a bygone era and the innocence of childhood. It’s less confrontational than most of Lee’s joints – remaining content as a fairly straightforward family drama with few aspirations of sweeping statements – but it has a potent emotional core and lets Lee engage in some of his boldest cinematic experimentation as he explores where his sensibilities came from.
The third of currently six films in Lee’s Chronicles of Brooklyn series, Crooklyn’s Bed-Stuy setting shares a lot of the visual flair found in all of them, with brighter colors than the actual streets and an added sheen they mostly lack today. As with so many films about childhood, there is an undercurrent throughout that the world through a child’s eyes is more wondrous and magical, before the sting of reality can set in and bring disillusionment with it, but to anyone familiar with the neighborhood’s crime problems during the time of the film’s release, this seems even stronger. Now, as the neighborhood has been overtaken by gentrification, Crooklyn takes on a new meaning as a sort of cultural document, giving a glimpse into the lives of the people who have largely been forced out but who once had a lively and vibrant community.
Though the film is about the early lives of Lee and his siblings and particularly their mother’s illness, it’s a loose retelling that uses a fictional family experiencing many of their memories. Many scenes, however, feel so true to life that it feels as if Lee had turned on the camera in his own childhood home and stitched the footage together decades later. This isn’t because they are filmed realistically, especially as Lee’s trademark camera tricks all show up here and reality becomes distorted, but because the stories (like a dog getting squished in a couch) often seem so absurd that they have to be true. They are all played out so earnestly and frantically that they feel like actual memories of my life. Kids play games and dump garbage on neighbors’ houses and give their commentaries on television programs. They aren’t the same as the experiences I had as a kid, but they capture the mindset of youth and the carefree nature of even the worst days that is common to so many memories of childhood. It’s a time to run free but also a time where danger lurks everywhere and the adults that deal with that shape minds for years to come. This all finds its realization through a brilliant choice of performers, particularly the children. Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo have long been some of the most talented actors in the business, no matter what kind of role they’re playing, and they bring the right amount of tension and sensitivity to every moment here, but a long history of child actors being less than stellar makes the ability of the children to pick up on each other’s rhythms and feel like real siblings particularly astounding.
The most jarring aspect of the film comes when one of the children, Troy, is sent south to live with her relatives and Lee switches to using an anamorphic lens. The result is a squeezed picture meant to make the world and inhabitants of the south seem alien to the Brooklyn-raised Troy. In a film otherwise mostly devoid of these sorts of camera tricks, it is particularly memorable and so out of the blue that many audiences, myself included, found themselves wondering at first if there was a problem with the display. Spike Lee has always been known for his confronting experimentation, and it often leads to fairly messy, though intriguing results. Here, in its most overt form, married to a story about Lee’s own life, his filmmaking sensibilities become clearer than ever.