jigsaw (fletcher markle, 1949)
el dorado (howard hawks, 1966)

african-american directors series: crooklyn (spike lee, 1994)

Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. Just based on the number of his films I've seen, he ranks high (Letterboxd tells me I've only seen more movies by three directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, and Hitchcock). At various times, I have listed Do the Right Thing as the best film of 1989, the best movie of the 1980s, and one of the 25 best movies of all time. In my most recent list of the top directors, I had him at #37, between Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci. The quality of his films is variable ... just think of Bamboozled ... but that could be said about most directors not named Jean Renoir (think Casino or Hook or Rope ... OK, some people like that last one).

One way to think of directors is by looking at their most typical films, typical meaning it falls in the middle of his films as I rank them. Like, say, 25th Hour, a good movie but not a great one. Spike Lee is always capable of making a movie as good or better than 25th Hour, and that's a high standard, one that makes each new Spike Lee joint something to look forward to. Which means I'm not sure why it's taken me almost 30 years to get around to Crooklyn.

Crooklyn is one of the good ones, reminiscent of Do the Right Thing in its insightful portrait of a neighborhood and a community. Crooklyn mostly lacks the biting social commentary of Do the Right Thing ... at its core, it's a family drama. As we have come to expect, Lee gets many of the details right. You could call Crooklyn affectionate (it's rated PG-13, a rarity for Lee). He gets a large cast of fine actors to do fine jobs, including people like Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, Lee regulars like David Patrick Kelly, Spike's sister Joie, and Spike himself (the two of them, along with brother Cinqué Lee, wrote the screenplay, which emphasizes the semi-autobiographical nature of the film). Young Zelda Harris is great in the key role of Troy, the lone girl in a family of brothers. Harris is a teacher now, having become frustrated by the way the movie industry tried to typecast her as "the best friend" ("Your Friendly Black Sidekick").

Special mention must be made of the soundtrack, filled with 1970s tracks, so filled, in fact, that it took the release of two soundtrack albums to get it all in.

Special mention must also be made for an odd decision by Lee to remove the anamorphic adjustment for 20 minutes that take place when Troy spends time with family outside of Brooklyn. Lee wants to show visually how disorienting the trip was for Troy, and he certainly succeeds, such that audiences thought there was something wrong with the projection. Signs were placed in theaters warning viewers in advance that it was meant to look as it did. Watching on TV, I cursed Starz for a while, thinking they'd screwed up, before I checked online and found what was going on. For me, this was a failed experiment.


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