Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Mekhi Phifer, Isaiah Washington, Harvey Keitel
Last year Spike Lee’s most flammable joint, Do The Right Thing, got itself a re-release and a Criterion Collection special edition. A belated victory lap for one of the most bold and distinctive American films of the 1980s. Do The Right Thing tends to be held up as pristine Lee; the peak of his early material. For later-career bombast, BlacKkKlansman is an undeniably rich prospect for quick celebration, too. But what of the films between these two pillars? There are plenty. Lee is nothing if not prolific. But few reach to 1995’s Clockers and I feel like that’s an oversight.
Watching the film now, 25 years on, it’s influence is clear. Hell, you could show this flick to students coming up on The Wire (itself old enough now to be considered classic or vintage!) and tell them that Lee’s joint was in effect a pilot for David Simon’s series, and a good number would believe you. Granted, we’re in Lee’s stomping grounds of NYC as opposed to Baltimore, but the flavour of it is near dead-on for what Simon would go on to evoke, right from the opening credits (one of the all-time title sequences for potency of tone). Look closer and you’ll note that the more direct correlation is Richard Price, author of the novel Clockers is based on (and co-screenwriter), who went on to write for The Wire. His import to that series becoming clear.
Clockers are dealers, whiling away the days out front of the low-rent high rises. One among them is Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham (Mekhi Phifer). Shrewd little details about him subvert blanket profiling. Sure, he’s a street hustler, but he drinks nothing but chocolate milk and has a passion for trains; details that chisel out character, that dare to suggest layers to what another director might’ve smoothed over. This is part of Lee’s necessity. As a prominent black filmmaker he has always recognised and met the challenge of his imposed responsibility to represent. Black youth in American film is often criminally over-simplified, but to steal a line from The Wire, “all the pieces matter”.
Strike is given orders to assassinate local business owner Daryl Adams (Steve White) by local gangster and father figure, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). The task weighs heavy on his mind as he prepares, sitting in a bar where he meets his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) by happenstance. Next morning, boom, Adams’ body is laid out on the sidewalk with four bullet-holes, the NYPD chucking out sports quips as they root around the corpse for clues. But it is Victor who comes forward to confess his guilt, not Strike. Seasoned detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) calls bullshit on Victor’s story, though his more racially prejudice partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) is happy to chalk up the arrest for the department’s stats. The viewer is forced to ask who they believe, and why.
Lee paints his film with the same bright colours that made Do The Right Thing stand out, in the process embracing and celebrating diversity in the city… in all its complexities. At all times Clockers is a less-than-subtle essay on tensions between races and classes, presented in such a way as to argue that the time for subtly is over. Assumptions – and the problems that come with making them – are at the heart of Clockers; the preconceived notions we’ve been fed one way or another. Lee doesn’t pander to his audience either. The film opens with Strike and his friends talking about their preferred rap stars out in the park at high velocity, dialogue overlapping at a rate that’d give Altman pause. It’s a truthful representation of patter and vernacular. Lee is representing a subculture. Indeed, the first hour of the movie ranks among the finest stretches Lee has committed to celluloid, bristling with virtually experimental ambition. The second hour levels out somewhat, but still holds its own.
Clockers may well be an adaptation of a mystery page-turner, but its arrival post-Rodney King is no coincidence. Lee’s film might be taking place a continent away from LA’s mean streets, but the sense of bristling conflict between black and white, cops and criminals, remains urgent. Timely then; timely a quarter of a decade later.
Strike is exceedingly sick, frequently coughing up blood. The seriousness of his suffering, however, is routinely ignored or even mocked. Det. Klein might be the more switched on of the two detectives on the case, but Lee itemises frequent lapses in his vision and empathy. He’s not the ‘good cop’ – Clockers isn’t nearly so simplistic. Strike vomits blood while Klein questions him around the neighbourhood, but Klein just keeps on hammering him for answers. When Strike collapses in need of an ambulance, Klein just drives away. The scene invites study into the blindness of white America to the slow and painful decay of black citizens. A dispassionate epidemic.
Clockers also boasts one of the most glorious ’90s soundtracks you’ll hear. Lee underpins virtually all scenes with earnest, blossoming score, courtesy of Terence Blanchard. It’s the type of generous accompaniment one might ordinarily associate with rich ’50s melodrama. It’s positioning here asks us to approach Lee’s depiction of African American Brooklyn with the same level of windswept seriousness, the same gravitas and majesty. Anyone getting (rightfully) rhapsodic over Daniel Lopatin’s recent Uncut Gems score, might be surprised to find a significant number of progenitors here.
I still have blanks in my Lee viewing. Joints yet to see. At the time of writing, however, Clockers takes the prize as my pick of the bunch. Up there with Do The Right Thing and his post-911 requiem 25th Hour. There’s a poetry to Lee’s depiction of life on both sides of a divide here – of the divide itself – that comes from a heart overflowing with emotion. It’s a film that comes from a place of anger and upset, but one that still has love for even the desperate, the dead and the dying.