Blu-ray Review: Clockers | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, September 19th, 2020  


Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Mar 16, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Director Spike Lee’s overlooked Clockers­ plays like a proto-Wire depiction of young black men caught in the cycle of crime in rough American cities. It’s thoughtful and grisly, and compared to the run of West Coast films dealing with similar subject matter in the ‘90s, less histrionic.

It follows 19-year-old Strike (Mekhi Phifer) and his crew selling drugs in the courtyard in front of a Brooklyn housing project, following orders given by Strike’s mentor and supplier Rodney (Delroy Lindo). Rodney is small time and sad from a distance. He runs the neighborhood crack trade from his corner candy store and from the driver’s seat of his shiny car, one gold-braceleted hand on the wheel, the other clutching a handgun under the seat. Up close he’s terrifying—a master manipulator who feigns fatherly love to convince young men to commit murders and to deal drugs on his behalf, while offering violent consequences for anyone who disappoints or fails him, or anyone with a conscience.

When Strike’s upstanding brother (Isaiah Washington) confesses to a murder Strike was ordered to commit, calloused detectives Rocco Klein and Larry Mazilli (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) investigate, incredulous that it’s not Strike who committed the crime. Keitel’s detective surprises Strike by caring about the truth, as if it’s the first time anyone cared what Strike did or didn’t do at all. Turturro’s detective is more interested in punching out and going home, case solved. The two are introduced trading crass jokes about a victim’s wounds at a murder scene along with the other cops who regard the neighborhood’s residents with contempt and disdain—anyone who caught a bullet must have deserved it.

But Keitel’s cop shows an unfocused empathy and frustration with the cyclical, intractable violence of the struggling neighborhood, especially in comparison to their (mostly white) fellow cops who run raids on the courtyard. They degrade anyone caught near the benches where Strike and his crew perch, making the men drop their pants for searches and otherwise humiliating and dehumanizing suspects and bystanders.

Lee shot the film in aggressively grainy, high-contrast tones. And the new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber could use a better film restoration. But the grit of the film suits the grit of the subject matter and the characters themselves. It’s vibrant, not in the Basquiat-like primary colors of Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing. It’s more like the harsh red, white and black of a New York Post front page. Lee establishes the report-from-the-trenches approach early: the opening credits roll over crime scene photos of gun-shot victims, and later again during a devastating montage of users, whittled away by crack cocaine, using in alleyways and stairwells.

The users bought the drugs from Strike and Rodney and the rest. But Strike is given more depth and individuality compared to similar characters from the ‘90s. He loves trains, but has never left the city, and he spends his drug dealing profits to build an intricate model set in his apartment. He has a conflicted inner life. His body, like his mind, deserves better than the opportunities life has afforded, and his stomach ulcer bleeds uncontrollably. He is both product and cause of neighborhood ills.

There are moral beacons who see the projects crumbling and know the unfulfilled potential in Strike and urge him to find a better path: a housing-project cop (Keith David), and a mother (Regina Taylor) of a young boy who is terrified that Strike will lead her own son down the same path. Their fury and desperation likely act as the voice of Lee in the film, beyond frustrated by the drug trade and murders.

The film deserved a bigger audience upon its release in ’95, even with an uneven tone and spotty lead performance by Phifer. At times he struggles to carry the slang and occasionally awkward, stylized dialogue—co-written by Lee and Richard Price, who wrote the source novel. It is also a burden on some of the side players. But Phifer is surrounded by outstanding turns by David, Lindo, Keitel, and Turturro, who can all act circles around nearly anyone. Clockers presents a more complicated moral landscape than Lee’s recent crowd-pleaser Blackkklansman. Without outright excusing or condemning Strike, Lee mostly avoids pandering or preaching and lands somewhere close to the truth, however uneven.


Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @edmcmenamin


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