Crooklyn January 29, 2021
David Patrick Kelly
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
here isn’t much narrative shape to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), but it doesn’t really need one to have an effect on us. It’s meant to function as an affectionately made collage, with all its disparate pieces adding up to make a portrait. Written by Lee and his siblings, Joie and Cinqué, this semi-autobiographical ode loosely recounts what it was like for them growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. The care with which it has been made is
part of what makes it touching. Its warmth for the most part covers up the fact that the movie doesn’t have anything especially significant to say, and that there are areas of it — namely how the parents and the sibling bonds are characterized — that remain underdeveloped. (There are a few emotional scenes recounting spats between Mom and Dad, usually over money, but we wish we had a better sense of their relationship and their personhood in general.)
As mosaic as Crooklyn can feel, it has a constant throughline in the baby of the family, Troy (Zelda Harris). Presumably Joie’s stand-in, the film, when not offering vignette-style scenes, homes in on how her sense of shelf changes shape in the course of a few years. You can picture the Lee siblings spitballing the childhood memories that continue sticking out to them behind the scenes. The time Mom (a terrific Alfre Woodard) got in a fight with the next-door neighbor that woke up the whole block one night. The time everybody in the family was enjoying some sand cake that Dad (a heartfelt Delroy Lindo) brought home except one of their brothers. (Mom wouldn’t let him have any until he finished the black-eyed peas that came with dinner — something he stubbornly refused to do with funnily catastrophic results.) Or the time their aunt couldn’t find her prized pet Pomeranian and then, to everyone’s horror, coincidentally discovered his fluffy little body smushed by the inners of a hide-a-bed couch.
In writing these events naturally sound typical — ordinary for a big family. But in a movie like Crooklyn, which evocatively recreates these events through a still-sentimental child's eyes, they become momentous, almost. Sometimes they even make you temporarily nostalgic for your own childhood, whose happiest of otherwise mundane events become extra special in your memory because you were the one who experienced them and no one else knows what it was like to have lived them. The soundtrack encompasses hits from the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, the Staples Singers, Sly & the Family Stone, and others; it efficiently communicates the idea of when these songs come on nowadays I always think of my childhood. It’s a nice touch that adds to the film’s sense of familial intimacy, although Lee’s tendency to back most scenes with music can lend them an unwanted air of construction.
Crooklyn seeks to capture what it felt like to be there at that time and that place. The impressionistic approach is mostly appealingly redolent, though when Troy is forced to spend one summer with her priggish aunt (Frances Foster) and her family down South, Lee makes the bizarre choice to photograph everything in a way that makes everything look thin and stretched-out. It’s an awkward and unnecessary way to convey just how cloistered and wrong everything felt down here to our pint-sized heroine during those sweltering, repressed few months. (Like audiences in 1994, whom ticket-takers had to warn ahead of time to prevent a projection-room kerfuffle, I thought I was watching a glitchy copy of the movie at first.) Still, I was happy to get to know this version of the Lees. Watching Crooklyn is like being invited to watch a family friend’s home movies. These are only snippets of their collective lives, but you’re still affected by their ephemeral full-heartedness — how they evince a kind of togetherness that comes and goes before you can fully appreciate it. B