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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 13, 1994


Spike Lee
Zelda Harris;
Alfre Woodard;
Delroy Lindo;
David Patrick Kelly;
Carlton Williams

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Spike Lee has a heedless, jazzy instinct. Unconstrained by compulsive discipline, almost arrogantly confident in his instincts, he blunders forward with jagged inspiration. Typically, "Crooklyn," a quasi-autobiographical drama (scripted with siblings Joie and Cinque Lee) about a family in Brooklyn, shows the filmmaker at his best and worst.

But Lee's best is so good -- "Crooklyn" ranks among the finest work he's done -- it drowns out the negatives. Certainly the film has a messy, sometimes amateurish structure, and there's one acutely jarring, overlong sequence in which the cameraman intentionally distorts the perspective so that the characters are squeezed into vertical caricatures.

But this wouldn't be a Spike Lee movie without flaws (nor without an amusing Spike Lee cameo). For those who can overlook the occasional flat note, "Crooklyn," which stars Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, is a dynamic, spirited rendering of African American family life during the early 1970s. Modulating from heavy to light, from angry to lyrical, and so on, the movie's an enjoyable, emotional symphony.

Starting out with a familiar, aerial sweep of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone neighborhood (reminiscent of the beginning to Lee's "Do the Right Thing"), the movie stays afloat on wave after wave of music. Terence Blanchard's jazz-symphonic score forms an airily lush accompaniment to the story. And the soundtrack -- so large it's in two volumes -- is abundant with tunes of the times, from Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, the Stylistics, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, the Jackson 5 and others.

Although fictional, the film clearly reflects the collective reminiscences of Spike Lee's family in Brooklyn, during the era of Walt Frazier, Soul Train and Afro-Sheen commercials. The oldest son, bespectacled Knicks fan Clinton (Carlton Williams), occupies the same spot Spike Lee did. Troy (Zelda Harris), the sole girl, whose happiness is hindered daily by her four brothers (Williams, Sharif Rashid, Chris Knowings and Tse-Mach Washington), is obviously co-scriptwriter Joie Lee's alter ego.

But "Crooklyn" is the hallowed -- almost musical -- version of their life, as the Carmichael family weathers hard times, good times and, finally, tragedy. The movie is, above all, about the overall feeling of growing up -- those games of stickball on the street, the daily sibling battles, the husband-wife squabbles, the parent-child warfare. The family scenes are often priceless: Watching "The Partridge Family" on television, the kids sing along to "I Woke Up in Love This Morning."

At another point, Troy -- half-asleep -- stumbles out of bed to relieve herself but miscalculates where the bathroom is. And in an almost allegorical confrontation, Nate refuses his mother's order to eat a plate of black-eyed peas. They're full of calcium, she offers. "All the calcium in the world ain't gonna make up for this nasty taste," he


After a pleasurable round of these episodes, "Crooklyn" evolves into Troy's engaging, coming-of-age story, as she is sent away for a spell to her aunt (Frances Foster), a religious woman who insists on straightening Troy's hair with a hot iron. But here's where that perspective disaster takes place. The scene's visual distortion, produced with an anarmorphic lens, is supposed to represent Troy's alienation. This would have been a wonderful effect if it had been temporary. But it lasts too long and -- no doubt -- audiences across America will glance over their shoulders, thinking the projectionist has made a huge mistake.

The other shortcomings include a melodramatic bummer, which tethers the freewheeling energy of the picture. Nevertheless, this shortfall leads to one great reward: a profoundly touching sibling reconciliation. Whatever is said about "Crooklyn" -- and whether it's considered half empty or half full -- its heart is in the right place. That intrinsic goodwill is what the movie, ultimately, is all about.

"Crooklyn" is rated PG-13 for language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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