Lee's title sequences are always carefully wrought, a self-conscious trademark. The one for Clockers shows an endless series of murder victims, on the pavement, in a playground, in a car, slumped over a railing, while a sweet male voice not unlike Stevie Wonder's sings a grieving ballad ("People in Search of a Life"). The contrast between sound and image is almost unbearable, but also almost a misjudgement, even in a film where the soundtrack is often the only source of beauty and value - in the muffled gleam of a trumpet note, or the indomitability of a vocal by Seal. The title sequence gives us fair warning not to expect entertainment.
With Clockers (the title refers to street drug dealers, lowest in the pecking order), Spike Lee has adapted a novel for the first time - Richard Price's best-seller of 1992. The plot concerns the murder of a clocker who works in a fast-food restaurant, but this is the degree-zero of whodunnit. At first, it isn't easy to care who pulled the trigger. There's Strike (Mekhi Phifer), another clocker who has been told that he can take over the restaurant patch, but only if he makes it vacant. Then there's his older brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), who has confessed to it, despite being to an almost absurd degree the good man unbroken by deprivation, working two jobs and planning to move his family out of the project.
The bad brother / good brother theme is repeated on the police team: there's Larry Mazilli, who doesn't really see the clockers as human, despite being played by John Turturro, used by Lee in the past to embody a little innocence, a little hope. And there's Rocco Klein, played by Harvey Keitel, the latest in a long line (Thelma and Louise, Mortal Thoughts) of harsh but humane policemen to be played by this actor. Admittedly, in his first extended scene, he doesn't seem any less antagonistic than his colleagues.
This is an outstandingly upsetting sequence in which the body is examined outside the fast-food restaurant. The detectives seem to be jeering at the dead man as much as gathering clues, and the corpse is actively dishonoured by their attentions. If you don't want to hear the sticky noise, moreover, made by blood-soaked hair when it's peeled from the pavement, this would be a good moment to put a few fingers in your ears. But by the end of the film, even the apparently hard bitten Strike is asking Detective Klein what makes him care, when the others are all "blase, blase". In what would be a running joke if Clockers admitted any but the grimmest comedy, Klein never believes it's his bleeper going off: he assumes it's a drug-related message being sent to the pager of whichever kid he is talking to at the time.
There is, in fact, another good policeman, who is black and still lives on the project. But there is also Rodney (Delroy Lindo), a pillar of local business who is nevertheless part of what is bringing the community to its knees. Rodney has a real estate licence and a barber shop, but he runs the local gangs of clockers. What he is, essentially, is Fagin in Brooklyn, catching kids young and teaching them the only trade they will ever know. Rodney has a striking speech at one point, praising what he sells as "the world's greatest product". He goes on: "If God created anything better than crack cocaine, he kept that shit for himself." Crack for Rodney isn't a pleasure drug - he doesn't take it himself - but a truth drug. It strips people down to bare need.
There's a real shortage of biological fathers in the film, and that's part of Rodney's advantage: he can train kids to be killed or arrested, and they'll be grateful for the attention. There's a strand of the film in which Strike, himself Rodney's protege, tries to recruit even younger Tyrone (Pee Wee Love), buying him haircuts and hi-tech toys, letting him play with the elaborate train set that represents the possibility of escape, as well as the fact that the world runs on fixed tracks. Strike, aged 19, gets to play dad to a 12-year-old, telling him this is grown-up stuff, showing him how to cut crack with a playing card, and never ever to try what you sell.
It's hard to say whether this is a film with little room for women, or if it shows us a world where women are reduced to picking up the pieces. At least Tyrone's mother has a magnificent scene where she warns the clockers against corrupting her son. She goes up to kids who have renamed themselves Go or Skills or Scientific, and calls them by their christened names. A hardened young offender shrivels with the abhorred syllables: "Cedric Stanley Gilmore."
Spike Lee uses twitchy camera movements for the scenes of clockers selling in the projects, and gets good work from his novice director of photography, Malik Hassan Sayeed. Sometimes, though, he seems to remember that he is a world famous director, and goes for an inappropriately fancy shot - a prestige shot. While Victor is being interrogated, Klein tells him, "I want to see what you see." Next thing we know, there's a little reflection of Klein bobbing on the filmy surface of Victor's eye - a startling image, and well contrived, but as distracting as a firework at a funeral.
Later, when Klein is coaching Tyrone in false testimony that will get him out of trouble, the scene is shot like a rock video, with Keitel appearing in a bizarre variety of places to prompt Tyrone with what he should say. Clockers is a resolutely downbeat story, in which stylistic flourishes - escapism on the level of technique - don't belong.
It's downbeat at least until the end, when Price's story drops its disguise of research and suddenly offers us contrived little vistas of redemption. The ending of the film has a distinct tang of the TV movie, with an issue that has been treated with apparent commitment being filed abruptly away. This may not be Lee's doing (Price co-wrote the script), and Clockers remains a powerful piece of work, but it isn't quite what his career needs. After nearly 10 years as the best known black director in the world, and a recent string of unsatisfactory projects, he needs to establish himself afresh. Downbeat is big box-office at the moment, but the artificial depressiveness of Seven is very far from Clockers. Right now, the only thing Spike Lee needs more than a masterpiece is a hit.
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