“Crooklyn” (1994) is a Spike Lee film about a nine-year-old girl growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 1973. Imagine if Spike Lee had done “My Girl” (1991). Sort of like that. Except that it is one of the few well-known American films where the main character is a black girl. Spike Lee’s sister Joie wrote and produced. It is loosely based on her life. Alfre Woodard plays the mother.
My Rule of Alfre: No matter how bad it looks at first, if Alfre Woodard is in it, it will be well worth watching to the end.
Back in the 1990s I did not fully understand that, so I stopped watching “Crooklyn” after 20 minutes. I thought it was terrible.
Watching it now I can see why: it has no plot and, for the first 40 minutes, no main character. Because it is a Spike Lee film, I thought the oldest son, the one with the glasses, was the main character, but it turns out to be his little sister Troy, rhymes with Joie. She has four brothers but none of them stands out as a character in his own right – they are just her stupid brothers. Instead her father (Delroy Lindo) and mother stand out.
What we learn:
- Brooklyn is the centre of the universe.
- The early 1970s had great music.
- Family is important: never take it for granted.
- Alfre Woodard is great.
Nothing about race in this Spike Lee joint: Troy pretty much lives in a protected, all-black world.
Like “My Girl”, also set in the early 1970s, it does not seem particularly dated. While it hits you over the head with the music and games and television of the period, like it was a VH1 flashback show, everything is too staged and nice-looking. Gone are the terrible songs and terrible clothes. The utter tackiness of that period never comes through – helped in part by her mother’s distaste of polyester and her father’s distaste of rock-and-roll.
Still, it makes wonderful use of period music. Especially “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1971) by the Jackson 5 and “Oh Girl” (1972) by the Chi-Lites.
At one point Troy stays with her aunt down South for a few weeks. Her aunt’s house is filmed through an anamorphic lens: everything seems too narrow, like it was an alternate reality. Her aunt had the whole middle-class fake thing down perfectly. When Troy gets a letter from her mother it is a breath of fresh air. Troy could not wait to get back to Brooklyn and neither could I!
“Crooklyn” compared to “Claudine” (1974), starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, another family film set in black New York in the early 1970s:
- Bed-Stuy not Harlem
- middle-class not working-class
- general R&B hits instead of Gladys Knight & the Pips
- the main character is a girl not a woman
- the characters are way less stereotyped
- written by a black woman remembering her girlhood, not by well-meaning white liberals trying to “show the other side”