Clockers

500px-Clockers_20What people don’t get about Spike Lee is that he has no particular problem with white people. He has a problem with people who make African-Americans poor, addicted, or dead. That very often means white people, alas; but in Clockers, it also means other black people. Clockers is messy and didactic, but it’s complex in a way that a tidy film can’t be. Black cops, black mothers, decent African-Americans of every background and gender, all do their best to stem the tide of racial suicide: young black guys killing each other over nothing. But as long as there is human weakness, there will be people of all colors to prey on it. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Lee is 38 now, and a husband and father, and Clockers is his passionate plea for the violence to stop. The source novel, by Richard Price, whose script Lee reworked, was a vast Dostoyevskian study of two men: Strike, a 20-year-old “clocker” (crack dealer) looking to retire from the street, and Rocco Klein, a homicide cop close to retirement himself. The book’s magic was in the way these men’s worlds collided while remaining a universe apart. Lee has jettisoned almost all the Rocco material, sacrificing much of Price’s narrative depth. Instead, Lee has irised in on Strike, resulting in a very different Clockers. (The title now seems to refer only to the crack dealers; Price meant it to include Rocco, who watches the clock tick towards his retirement.) The movie is sometimes excessive and clumsy, but its roughness is affecting. In all, this is perhaps Lee’s most emotionally committed filmmaking since Do the Right Thing.

Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is too smart and too cautious for his work; he has a bleeding gut and a perpetual expression of nausea. This isn’t a drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold. Like Price, Lee delineates the allure of crime to fatherless boys — crime represented by veteran hardcases who both nurture and intimidate their young protegés. Years ago, the fatherless Strike fell under the thrall of the legendary Rodney (Delroy Lindo), who uses his small variety store as a front for a training ground for clockers. Lindo, with his easy manner and honey voice, gives us the most seductive and frightening portrait of evil we’ll see this year. Rodney positions himself as these kids’ ticket to prosperity, and they don’t question him. When Rodney gives Strike an oblique order to kill an uppity clocker who’s been pocketing too much of the profits, Strike sees it as an opportunity, an honor — but only for as long as he’s in Rodney’s car, under his spell. Afterward, it’s just one more thing on his mind, turning his stomach to acid.

The offending clocker turns up dead. For a long time, Lee keeps us unsure who pulled the trigger (unless we’ve read the book). Was it Strike, or was it his upstanding older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), who may have snapped under the strain of being decent? Victor turns himself in, offering a story that detective Rocco (Harvey Keitel) pokes full of holes. In the novel, Richard Price served up several red herrings, including a fearsome young hit man absent from the movie. Spike Lee isn’t into whodunit; his Clockers asks “Why does this happen?” Those who expect a twisty, satisfying resolution to the murder will be disappointed. Lee couldn’t be less interested in the fake-out games that made Price’s 600-page novel read like a meteor. He stays with what’s important to him: the cult of violence, the business of drugs, the endless racial suicide — themes that have been covered in other recent movies but not, I think, so impressionistically.

Rodney has a fatherly touch with Strike, and Strike, in turn, gives the same attention to a young boy who watches, starry-eyed, as the clockers do business on the benches of Brooklyn. Clockers has an aching, pervasive mood of despair. First-time cinematographer Malik Sayeed gives the images a desaturated, grainy texture that seems to flesh out the characters and bleed them dry at the same time; it’s a switch from the bold, clear-eyed lighting used by Lee’s previous DP, Ernest Dickerson. The camerawork is often jiggly and hand-held, recording the mechanics of clocking as if a tourist with a camcorder were catching it on the fly. Spike Lee almost always tries something daring in each new film, and he always pulls off something amazing and does something else embarrassing. I doubt even Martin Scorsese, who coproduced Clockers and once planned to direct it, could have improved on Lee’s staging of Rodney’s flashback to his first kill. The emotions — fear, disgust — mesh with the jagged visuals. The same can’t be said of the climax, with Rocco interrogating Strike’s young protegé. It plays like an anti-crime commercial starring Harvey Keitel as himself; he even, God help us, looks into the camera and says “You wanna do the right thing.”

I cringed at that, and at some other moments. Price’s novel wasn’t perfect either. Both book and movie address weighty issues in a crime-story format, a difficult balancing act unless you’re James Ellroy. This is an odd period for crime movies anyway. Scorsese is still the acknowledged master, whipping up gangster epics that feel definitive. On the other end of the spectrum, you have postmodern pranksters like Tarantino and Bryan Singer, who love crime movies for their rhetorical possibilities, the parodic spectacle of tough guys whacking each other with words as well as bullets. Clockers is somewhere off to the side, loudly insisting on responsibility and sanity.

Spike Lee has finally made a genre film, but he hasn’t stooped to conquer. There are no exhilarating “Spike moments,” no scenes that make us feel the sensual pleasure Lee takes in moviemaking. He makes us feel something else this time. Clockers is a story Spike Lee wishes he didn’t have to tell.

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