January 24, 2008

Mini-review: Clockers

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Clockers, the movie
Clockers (movie; 1995)
Written by Spike Lee and Richard Price, from Price's original book
Directed by Spike Lee

You know the question and I know the question, but no one ever seems to want to talk about it -- what are we to do with filmmaker Spike Lee? Of the 20 major theatrical releases he's now directed, some have turned out to be masterpieces, some middling genre affairs, and some that have been legitimate disasters; and they hop from one genre to the next as well, with all the grace of a schizophrenic off their meds, with Lee suddenly shifting (sometimes within months) from quirky indie dramas to big-budget Hollywood biopics, pulpy thrillers, political documentaries and more. And this is all from the perspective of a nerdy white guy today too; the black community, on the other hand, has even more things to worry about with Lee, such as the uncomfortable criticisms he often makes about them in public, Lee's legacy as a black filmmaker versus simply a filmmaker, and all kinds of other touchy subjects I'm not going to touch today with a ten-foot-freaking-pole.

No, instead I'm here today to talk about Lee's 1995 inner-city drug-trade crime thriller Clockers, based on the wickedly awesome novel by gritty journalist turned gritty author Richard Price, one of the first mainstream creative projects ever to truly break down the economics of illegal drug circles within minority urban neighborhoods, and to really show exactly who makes what in such a system and how in fact it accidentally follows all the classic rules of free-market capitalism. Mostly the action revolves around the teenage "Strike" (Mekhi Phifer), who has worked his way up over just a couple of years to be the head "street kid" in charge of actually getting money and drugs transferred between walk-up customers and the gang's safehouse. Strike basically makes the kind of money doing this that a manager of a restaurant or store would; he's only one step away, though, from being "promoted" to a cushier position within the operation, most likely actually becoming the fake manager of a fast-food place as a front to move larger amounts of drugs in and out the back door, involving not only a pay-raise but also less hassle from the petty racist cops who work the street beat. What the novel does, then, is take a masterful and epic look at life swirling around Strike in such an environment, of the way Strike is worrying his way into a bleeding ulcer by all the stress being a street kid causes him, and of the way that a pervasive lack of any father figures within this environment is such a major piece of fuel on the fire of it all.

You can see why Lee would be interested in such material, but unfortunately he goes wrong with it almost from the start; what is dramatic in the book turns simply melodramatic in Lee's adaptation, with high moments from the novel turned into over-the-top ones in the film. It's a shame, because you can still see the framework there of what made Price's original book such a powerful one -- of the complex financial structure that is in place in such low-income, gang-controlled areas of the US, virtually guaranteeing that young males of color in such neighborhoods have almost no other choice besides joining the gray-market system themselves, through a series of jobs and salaries and promotions that is much more convoluted than either the cops or the general public even realize, which is why no one tries to shut down the system itself but rather endlessly bust a series of fourteen-year-olds actually holding the dime bags at the very bottom level of things.

It's too bad that Lee strays away from this core message so much in order to prove how stylish he can be, usually to the detriment of not only himself but the film as well; this was his '90s period, don't forget, after the Do The Right Thing years and before the Summer of Sam ones, when he was still trying to prove his big-budget chops to Hollywood via overproduced shrug-inspirers like Malcolm X, Girl 6 and He Got Game. It's too bad that Lee didn't take this on during another period in his career, like the one right now where he is more concentrated on communicating a personal vision; a sense of cinematic leanness could've greatly helped this movie, along with a whole lot less blaring saxophone and blinking lights in the background of every shot.

Out of 10: 6.9

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:00 PM, January 24, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |