“On your mark. Get set… Go!” These are the first words heard in Spike Lee’s 1994 film, Crooklyn. Perhaps one of Lee’s finest openings ever, it sets the stage wonderfully for what is to come. As the cast and crew of the film are imposed over children running and playing through the streets of Brooklyn, New York, the literal playfulness of Lee’s tale unfolds before the viewer. With Crooklyn, Lee sets his sights on making a family film, adding to the wide array of genres within which he has experimented. But of course, this is no run-of-the-mill coming-of-age style movie. Instead, it is a heartfelt film about childhood, delivered in the way only a Spike Lee Joint could be. With a soundtrack hand-picked by Lee, along with his usual vibrancy and flair, this has all the necessary ingredients to be a memorable film which highlights the impact our surroundings can have on our upbringing.
Co-written by Lee alongside his brother, Cinqué Lee, and sister, Joie Lee, Crooklyn is clearly a snapshot inspired by their Brooklyn upbringing. Most importantly, it pulls back the curtain on one of the most fascinating questions ever posed in cinema: how did Lee find his voice? If Crooklyn is even a fraction of what Lee and his siblings grew up alongside, it’s no surprise that his vision is consistently bursting with energy. As the familiar bickering of siblings and parents roars over a blaring television and unfinished meals, the sounds of the ’60s and ‘70s ring lightly in the background, with a constant veil of nostalgia and reverence layered over it all. Each scene feels deeply emotional, not just through seeing Lee’s cinematic sensibilities come to life, but from seeing where they were born in the first place.
At first glance, the message behind Crooklyn may not seem to be as impactful as seminal Lee works like Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X. Yet, for a film that handles one’s upbringing so intimately, Lee and his siblings shed light on universal experiences in nearly every scene. And a large part of why this film works so well is the expert casting. Specifically, the parental units of the film, Alfre Woodward and Delroy Lindo shine. On a trip down South, where Lee can’t help but toy with his audience and his own ideas by employing a brilliant camera trick, a husband and wife have a serious conversation about supporting one another. Seemingly taking place outside of space and time, it’s a raw message Lee delivers to the viewer through the struggles of Woodward and Lindo’s characters, and by proxy, his own parents. Lindo details his desire, even need, to create pure art, rather than what is more commercially viable. Equally, or perhaps even more importantly, Woodward makes her unwavering support abundantly clear by highlighting the many responsibilities she must take on as the matriarch of the household. In a single scene that barely clocks in at a minute and a half, Lee highlights a multitude of complexities regarding what it means to be a parent, a teacher, an artist. It’s one of the many solely dramatic moments littered throughout the film that showcase Lee’s ability to make astute observations on experiences extending far beyond his own. It’s soft moments like these that demonstrate why Crooklyn should sit in high regard among the rest of Lee’s filmography.
That is not to say that Lee doesn’t have plenty of fun within this film as well. There’s no limit to the range of eclectic characters Lee brings to life on screen. From the types of neighbors you can only find in New York City to shenanigans surely inspired by his siblings, Crooklyn has a youthful exuberance that is undeniable. Full of familial banter about why dinner wasn’t cleaned up, how well the Knicks are doing, or mischievous pranks pulled on one another, Lee has a distinct goal in mind. If looking back to the past evokes sadness, this nostalgia also allows us to experience memories full of joy and laughter. It’s definitely a balancing act, but with a master at the helm, viewers are assuredly in capable hands.
To breathe life and a true sense of realism into any piece of art is a challenge. To do so within a setting as unique and special as New York seems as if it should be impossible. And to do it time and time again, in ways that still feel fresh, while consistently retaining a trademark through-line no matter the style of film? Unfathomable. Yet, as Crooklyn demonstrates, what may be out of reach for most is quite literally what Lee was born to do.