Time inspired

As soon as writer-director Spike Lee burst into the national arena with his masterful unwinding of an urban race riot in 1989's Do The Right Thing, both Anglo and African-American audiences expected him to explain for us the strangling bitterness that lurks between black and white in America.

Unlike the eager young black filmmakers to whom Hollywood opened its doors in the early '90s, Lee provided us less with an authentic voice of disenfranchisement--his own New York childhood was relatively stable, supportive, and middle class--than a secondhand witness who could understand the bottled-up rage and generational disappointment he observed, but also couldn't help but portray it through the funhouse-mirror scrim of his own cinematic sensibility.

Think of the most acclaimed debuts in African-American cinema in recent years, and you realize Spike Lee has been traveling on an entirely different track from the men who've been labeled his disciples. John Singleton may have inserted a moral compass into urban hell with Boyz N The Hood, but only to have it picked up, tossed around, and crushed by the Hughes' brothers far more visceral Menace II Society. Boaz Yakin's Fresh balanced the spinning, shifting, fraternal allegiances of a drug-fueled inner city on its middle finger like a streetcorner hustler.

In the meantime, Lee has amassed a series of feature film credits which displays anything but a dedication to the Anglo-defined tragedy of drugs and gangs in big cities. Do The Right Thing addressed neither of those topics, and went so far as to suggest racism may be a universal failure of the imagination. Jungle Fever touched upon crack cocaine use with a star-making supporting performance by Samuel L. Jackson, but that theme ultimately took a back seat to the greasy, stick-to-your-ribs conversational riffs on sexual mythmaking among the races.

Those were the movies that featured a Spike Lee who seemed to function successfully in only one gear--pissed-off. But give him a tender moment, especially between a man and a woman, and watch him stumble through it with a fistful of cheesy valentine sentiments (for proof, witness any scene between the usually incendiary Denzel Washington and Joie Lee or Cynda Williams in Lee's miserable, tedious 1990 Mo' Better Blues).

Then Lee seemed to calm down and pay attention to his characters. Malcolm X was punchier, more exquisitely paced than any three-hour biopic had a right to be, with audiences understanding for the first time how Lee dealt with the passage of time in a man's life. Crooklyn slowed that pace even more, pulling back to the early '70s to show the beginnings of the drug scene and petty crime that would eventually disintegrate black families trying to stay intact in the city.

These were brave, curveball meditations for a filmmaker who's been criticized right and left every time he strayed from his assigned mission--to explore the connection between skin color and criminal pathology. That is the racist mantle Lee was handed by white film critics who championed his name after Do The Right Thing had been snubbed for several awards.

In short, Lee hasn't pleased the majority of any part of the American moviegoing public, and bravo for him. Many of his films have inexplicably awkward moments, but a conscientious student of his entire career understands these are the foreign lands where he departs from the viewer's expectations and perhaps, his own, stumbling through basic pacing and mood requirements that a filmmaker unburdened by instant superstardom might have been able to perfect under gentler scrutiny (Quentin Tarantino, time is not on your side). After the multiple media firestorms are extinguished, Lee is not some African-American oracle to be consulted whenever we want to take our cultural temperature. He is fascinated by moral complexities that transcend the barrier of ethnic differences, and for that reason alone, he is one step ahead of most of us.

With the release of his latest high-profile project, the Martin Scorsese-produced version of novelist Richard Price's Clockers, Lee answers the call of all those critics who claim that, as a chronicler of the African-American condition, he's never adequately addressed the fundamental issue of illegal drugs and the role they play in decimating generations of young black men.

Clockers is more than a reply--it's like a slow, detailed confession, maybe even an exorcism. Taking on a project originally developed for Martin Scorsese (who would become the film's producer and Lee's chief advocate), Lee fills in all the sociological gaps his previous character studies ignored, and stretches the statistics into a quartet of frightening, full-blooded characters. In his most mature film yet, he treads lightly through sequences that five years ago would have been chopped into jump cuts. He lets the people onscreen figure things out for themselves, or drown amid the waves of circumstance.

Strike (Mekhi Phifer), the industrious but gullible manager of a benchful of Brooklyn park "clockers" (drug messengers who carry money and deliveries), doesn't really think much about his future, except that he anticipates graduating into greater responsibility to the neighborhood dealer, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). When Rodney asks him to kill, as a sign of loyalty, a dealer who's been stealing from the stash, Strike and his virtuous brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) are drawn into a homicide case being investigated by a zealous detective--Rocco Klein (the ever-squinty, ever-squirrelly Harvey Keitel).

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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