On the job: Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, and John Turturro.



Wake Up Call

Spike Lee checks the times with Clockers.

by Coury Turczyn


When filmmakers promise reality, they always deliver fantasy. This is a given. No matter how "searing" the screenplay or "gritty" the acting or "hard-nosed" the directing, you know what you’re seeing is just a movie. These are actors pretending to be real people–because if the characters actually were real people, they’d look clumsy and they’d stutter and we’d never believe in them for a moment. So we abide these "gripping" dramas, and reassure ourselves of the fact that none of them truly happened in real life, not even the ones "based on a true story."

Spike Lee’s latest epic of urban strife, Clockers, opens with a close-up of a gaping bullet wound. We are then treated to re-creations of actual police photos of drug-related killings, a montage of real murders. But these aren’t ugly Mafioso types; these are young African American men and women, lying in puddles of their own blood, their blank faces marred by bullet holes.

With this short sequence of brutal reality, Lee sets himself up for quite a challenge. Can he possibly match the drama of those photos? Can his script and his actors convincingly mirror life and death in a Brooklyn project?

In many ways, Lee does just that, presenting a full picture of the people caught up in street-level drug trade, and the complex set of morals they live by. And, refreshingly, he does it by telling a bona fide story instead of simply proselytizing from his camera dolly. Clockers is his most convincing and revealing work of social drama yet.

One reason for its different sensibility may be that Lee co-wrote the script with tough-guy crime writer Richard Price (Sea of Love, The Color of Money). Instead of Lee’s usual meandering, circular storytelling, Clockers has a clear linear path to its conclusion. Based on Price's novel, it tells the story of Strike (Mekhi Phifer), a sweet-faced "clocker" who is already enmeshed in the drug life as if it were simply the most logical step for a boy his age to take. Hawking crack from sidewalk benches, he constantly nurses an ulcer that stabs at his stomach whenever he’s under pressure–which is most of the time.

His boss Rodney (the regal Delroy Lindo) runs the clockers almost like a home for wayward boys, becoming a much-needed father figure who imparts his own life-lessons on the children–like the importance of having cash to get anywhere in the projects. He chooses Strike to be his lieutenant … though first the boy must do a job for him, an initiation. He must kill another clocker who’s been stealing from Rodney.

Strike falters, unsure of whether he can murder someone. He turns to his older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), a hard-working husband and father, and spins lies about the proposed victim. Soon after, the wayward clocker is dead, shot down in a parking lot. Victor confesses to the crime. But did Strike really do it? That’s the question police detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) wants to answer. Cold and callous, he seems more interested in making sure he isn’t being "played by a couple of yo’s" than in establishing guilt and innocence.

It’s this kind of moral complexity–with characters who are both good and evil–that gives Clockers its sense of reality. Unlike previous Lee films, which are all about moral conflicts but lack a true moral compass, Clockers has a clear sense of sense of right and wrong, even as it details why good people do bad things.

Lee’s usual technique is to throw moral issues onto the screen, let them battle it out, and refuse to show what he thinks is "the right thing," which can be simultaneously thought-provoking and frustrating. In Jungle Fever, for instance, did he think it was wrong for blacks and whites to date and marry? Or did he think it wrong for others to judge mixed couples? Who knows? But he sure as hell whined about it a lot, either way. In Clockers, there is no question of good or bad–the question is, can there be redemption? Lee convincingly shows how the urban rituals work, how the young are recruited, and how those in the system can’t let themselves get out, even if they want to.

Beautifully shot and composed, Clockers is also a change of pace for Lee in that it has only a few film school excesses. Alternating film stocks and manipulating the film itself, cinematographer Malik Sayeed saturates Clockers with color while still retaining a dark and moody feel. However, Lee breaks the film’s studied reality with sequences like Harvey Keitel floating alongside a young boy riding his bicycle, and a "Gangsta" virtual reality video game that’s supposed to be wry commentary, but is patently unreal because the product (and its mass technology) simply doesn’t exist.

Overall, though, Clockers is refreshingly free of Spike Lee’s ego–there have been no grandstand pronouncements before the film’s release, no media battles, no claims of mistreatment. For once, it seems, he’s simply made a good movie, and has let it do the talking. Instead of politicizing it, Lee is allowing Clockers to stand on its own–an act which may win over those who’ve become weary of Spike Lee, the trademarked, product-licensing, sound-bite machine. We finally have back Spike Lee, the groundbreaking African American filmmaker.


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