Time inspired

Clockers is a searing sordid exorcism for Spike Lee

Whether it's shiftless Strike or hard-working, churchgoing family man Isaiah who pulled the trigger becomes the story's biggest non sequitur, since screenwriters Lee and Price have bigger fish to fry. They give us an occasionally humorous tour of the purely capitalist side of the drug culture, and in doing so make the issue of "to deal or not to deal" less of a struggle against evil than a careful line-item review of priorities. Since getting out of the crime-infested projects is what the outside world encourages you to do, why not pursue the fastest, most profitable source of income available to you in a world that doesn't distribute high-paying careers with birth certificates?

For many of the street dealers in Clockers, their dangerous business has become just that--the promise of acquiring enough collateral to spring over those invisible but very real iron walls. But one rule holds hard and fast among upper management--never use the stuff you sell.

In exploring the practical psychology of dope dealing, the character of kingpin Rodney Little becomes the most important, and in the hands of Delroy Lindo, he's transformed into a benevolent monster. Lindo was superb as the slick numbers boss in Malcolm X and the faltering parent in Crooklyn, and the role of Little calls on a bit of both. He is a loving father to all the fatherless boys who work for him, dispensing pep talks and warnings about the dangers of the pipe. He'll also ask for murderous proof of loyalty or shove a gun into your mouth the instant he thinks you threaten his prosperous livelihood.

Strike is his disciple, his favorite son, the clocker who's poised to move off the street into a higher post with real decisionmaking power. He, in turn, becomes the protg to a neighborhood kid named Tyrone (Pee Wee Love). Strike buys the boy video games, lets him play with the older guy's toy train set, and tutors him in the rules of professional clocking.

Poking through these layers of fraternal relationships, Lee colors his film with a resigned, almost sad patience. The score by longtime collaborator-jazzman Terrence Blanchard echoes this, working in a relaxed Stax-Volt key as often as the galloping hip-hop bravado Lee usually prefers. It's the same vibe Crooklyn created but couldn't sustain, a weary acceptance of a disintegrating community punctuated by some gentle, bluesy humor (several times during conversations between dealer Phifer and detective Keitel, a beeper goes off, and both fumble to check theirs at the same time).

The dramatic restraint in Clockers is especially welcome from Lee, who for a while suggested he hadn't scrutinized personal relationships with the same ruthless curiosity he'd brought to the politics of race. This imbalance has caused even his greatest films to suffer, although in occasional moments--such as the rap session among African-American women about black men and white women in Jungle Fever--the political went colliding into the personal and produced a brilliant head of sparks.

But now, it seems, Spike Lee doesn't possess the same monomaniacal drive to hit you in the gut with his revelations. Case in point--a gorgeously grainy sequence in which Harvey Keitel feeds a confession to young Pee Wee Love in order to save the boy's future. Lee suddenly places Keitel on the scene, reconstructing a shooting at point-blank range, walking the boy through the paces of a self-defense plea. Lee's camera spins slowly on its 360-degree axis, recording the panorama of the Brooklyn park as a mural where the clockers fire at each other with toy guns and fake "bang bang" noises.

It's an adult explaining the most complex, seemingly insurmountable tragedy to a child, and also a white man with a badge changing a little black boy's reality with the snap of a finger. Clockers is loaded with such scenes of benevolence and manipulation.

Spike Lee has finally articulated the vision of despair and redemption that had only just broken the surface in past films. So much the better that it happened with this searing character study of African-American drug culture. Now the critics should shut up, and let Lee move on to perfecting his dramatic chops.

Clockers. Universal. Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, Delroy Lindo. Screenplay by Richard Price and Spike Lee, from Price's novel. Directed by Spike Lee. Opens September 13.

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