#4 Crooklyn

July 22, 2016


A coming of age story that is all about family, this film is a semi-biographical journey in respects to growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1970’s. Having been raised there for the majority of his childhood, Lee was more than familiar of the time period and the unique characteristics of his native borough, so much so that he dedicated his thesis film and the majority of the feature films that followed as a tribute to his beloved hometown. Of course there are many sections of Brooklyn, from Bed Stuy to Brownsville, from Red Hook to Fort Greene, and Lee throughout his career has paid homage to the style and culture of each particular neighborhood. Yet as contrasting as each section may be, the rivalry between the boroughs themselves reigns supreme, and since the city’s inception there’s been a sense of pride in regards to what slice of the apple you come from. As a Bronx MC once said, “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it…” thus in the spirit of embracing imperfections Lee opens his doors and shows us his skeletons, a look inside a fantasized version of his own life story and a moment of gratitude for a mystical place called Crooklyn…

           The first and most prominent visual attached to Brooklyn are the Brownstones that were erected as early as the mid 19th century, mainly inspired from architecture throughout England and Holland that gave the borough a dignified appearance. One of it’s most notable attributes are the elevated steps that lead up to the doorway, essentially making it a second level entry way to it’s unassumingly spacious interior, and providing a designated hang out for it’s occupants and friends throughout the neighborhood. True to form the cover art for this film is our main protagonists sitting together on their stoop, a ceremonial image that is complementary to stickball on the street and the icy man down the block, giving the borough a vibrant energy and a sense of community.



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            As we’re soon to find out that family on the stoop is the Carmichaels, a lovable and relatable group who are basically your typical American family. The story is basically told through the eyes of Troy, a six year old girl who is small in stature with a personality larger than life. Troy is played by actress Zelda Harris, who would later play the ‘little sister’ as a teenager in He Got Game, yet thanks to her unforgettable performance in this film this will always be her defining role. Like most children her age Troy is ambitious and with a penchant for mischief, yet her roguery is more of a survival tactic as out of the five Carmichael children she is the only girl. Her elder brothers are the delicate Nathan, the prankster Wendell, and the basketball enthusiast Clinton, while the youngest in the family is baby Joseph who Troy takes it upon herself to look after. The children may be the heart and soul of the film, yet equally as significant are their loving parents, who within their emotionally charged roles arguably turn in the film’s finest performances as Woody and Carolyn Carmichael. Delroy Lindo plays the father, a struggling musician who loves his children dearly but struggles to pay the bills, which causes a divide with his wife and the matriarch of the family, a devoted school teacher played gracefully by Alfre Woodard. Together the family’s triumphs and failures drive the film’s storyline, and along with some colorful characters around the neighborhood, they all collectively do their part to turn in a summer that they’ll never forget.


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            Memorable scenes are in essence every single minute of screen time, as the chemistry within the characters is ultimately too profound to take your eyes off it. Carolyn’s hold on the children is apparent and endearing, and while it’s made clear that she is overworked and at times under appreciated, her intelligence and resiliency makes her the prototype for what every mother should be. On the flip side Woody’s personality is more complex, as secondary to his artistic integrity is apparently the priority of being a provider, demonstrated by his refusal to play popular music in favor of music that he’s composed himself. While his boldness is honorable it creates an undeniable burden that his wife is forced to overcome, eventually leading to a moment of chaos where Carolyn decides that Woody has to take his hard luck stories somewhere else. These moments of turbulence are unfortunate and relatable, but also impactful in how there’s no clear cut right or wrong, as both parents are devoted in their own way which is reciprocated by the unconditional love from their children. A defining moment is in fact when later in the film Carolyn decides to bring the children to support their father in concert, one that is not well attended and assumed to be another failure, if not for the value of sincerity and the reminder that if nothing else you’ll always have your family.

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          Otherwise during the film Lee unveils the trials and tribulations of his own childhood through the eyes of all the different characters in Crooklyn. From growing up in a brownstone in Fort Greene to his Knicks fandom that has persisted throughout adulthood, there are Lee’s footprints all throughout the film yet none more dramatic than the story of his mother. Like the film’s most powerful moment, our director himself dealt with a life changing event when his own mother Jacquelyn Lee (a teacher as well) unexpectedly died from cancer in 1976. As the story’s been told Lee channeled that disappointment by finding himself creatively, in turn becoming the artist that we know today. In the film however, the children are much younger when their dealt the same tragedy, ultimately making it all the more impressive once they rally around each other to keep the family in tact. It could be said that you grow up fast in Crooklyn, which is never more evident than in the closing scenes when Troy is brushing Joseph’s hair as Carolyn once did for her, illustrating that their mother’s with them in spirit and that the family she left behind is strong enough to keep pushing.

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          Along with the inspirational screenplay provided by Lee and siblings Cinque and Joie respectively, the most memorable characteristic of the film is perhaps it’s heartwarming soundtrack that coincides with the action frame by frame. Almost every popular act from the 70’s occupies a slot on this masterpiece so thorough that there needed to be two discs to make it complete, with classics from Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder just to name a few. One of my favorite musical moments however is when Troy leaves Virginia after an extended stay with relatives (shot deliberately with an out of focus lense to make the world outside of Crooklyn look like the Twilight Zone), and the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” plays behind that farewell symbolizing not only the end of that summer, but in retrospect also Troy’s youth considering the news she goes home to. From there the Chi-Lites classic “Oh Girl” hits home in how significant their mother was to all of them, only to be followed by Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” which indicates there are better days ahead.

            In closing to call this film uplifting is an understatement, as even in it’s sadness there is an underlying theme that promotes goodwill and good spirits as enough to persevere through anything. Furthermore the theme of family and camaraderie never wavers in the face of adversity, and therefore lights in the house or money in the bank is deemed rather inconsequential in comparison to their health and the invaluable time that they spend together. Also the neighborhood itself is a part of this family as well, as even the glue sniffers the cross dressers and the unsanitary man next door all contribute to the pulse of the street in which there’s never a dull moment. In the end this film makes a guy from the suburbs think about what he might have missed out on, as even with all it’s flaws I can’t help but wonder what it could’ve been like to grow up in a place like Crooklyn.


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