During the late 80s and early 90s Spike Lee was a prolific voice of cinema, with films that explored the racial divide and fostered a broader conversation about equality. His provocative 1989 film Do The Right Thing was an explicit and confronting piece of cinema that chronicled the multicultural tensions of a Brooklyn neighbourhood, and it remains one of the most important films of all time. To this day Lee regards himself as something of a messiah to a disengaged demographic, as he continues to champion the cause (mawkishly) and beat his drum. And while most of his later films struggle to recapture the youthful vigour of his former work, those films that made him an important filmmaker do remain relevant today.
Perhaps the most unexpected film amongst his 90s catalogue is Clockers, a dark and gritty urban drama about the gangs and drug dealers on the streets of Brooklyn. It is not the same romanticist Brooklyn he had depicted in Do The Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It or Crooklyn, but rather a grim and uncompromising one, where blood runs through the streets and bodies lay strewn. Where those aforementioned films offered hope, Clockers offers despair. Perhaps it was Lee’s frustration that his message wasn’t breaking through that compelled him to change tactics, or maybe it was pressure from his contemporaries to challenge moviegoers viscerally that brought upon a new manner… whatever the case, Clockers was ahead of its time and is arguably his most visually blatant and confronting film to date.
Set amongst the impoverished housing projects of Brooklyn, the story centres on a drug dealer named Strike, a “clocker” who finds himself caught in a conflict between his drug bosses and two ruthless detectives during a murder investigation. A clocker is the term given to street-level drug dealers, and when Strike can’t bring himself to follow his boss’ orders to kill a thieving clocker, he manipulates his brother into performing the hit. As tensions mount with his boss (Delroy Lindo) and the police tighten the screws, Strike’s health fails and he attempts to navigate his way to a new life, away from the crime and violence.
Clockers is an uncompromising film, and from the opening montage sequence of real life murder-scene photos, it is clear that Lee had something new to say. Hollywood had been inundated with gritty urban dramas at the same time Lee was rising up, and where his films were texturally vibrant, others were less frivolous. Young African-American directors like John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Ernest Dickerson (Juice) and The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) were painting an uncompromising picture of disadvantaged youth and by the time the mid-90s had arrived, Lee’s stories began to lose their impact.
Martin Scorsese was originally attached to direct Clockers but walked away from the project in favour of making Casino. It is possible that Scorsese’s Italian heritage, and affinity for mobster movies, caused him to lose confidence in the project, and rather than abandoning it entirely he stayed on as a producer and hired Lee to direct. Lee’s obvious cultural connection to the characters made it a sensible direction for the project to take, and with Scorsese’s name still attached, it allowed Lee to explore the darker themes. The long moralistic monologues that populated Lee’s previous work were replaced with excessive imagery of blood and gore, while the multicultural angst and rhetoric was refashioned into insensitive banter amongst police.
The ensemble of players reads like a draft call from both of Lee’s and Scorsese’s catalogues, with the added assortment of future stars. Mekhi Phifer made his feature-film debut as Strike, and it was an impressive and consummate performance that earned him a steadfast career. Harvey Keitel and John Turturro played the lead detectives, both relying on the sort of churlish demeanour that had served them well previously, while other support included Isaiah Washington, Keith David, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Mike Starr.
With a career spanning three decades, Spike Lee has often retread old ground with numerous attempts to recapture lightning in the bottle. He successfully did so by refashioning Do The Right Thing into his 1999 film Summer of Sam, and again with The 25th Hour. His 2012 film Red Hook Summer was an ill-conceived sequel to Do The Right Thing, and the fact that he STILL brands his films with “A Spike Lee Joint” may serve as proof of his inability to evolve any further.
And so, when I look back at all of Spike Lee’s films, the one that stands out the most is Clockers. It may not be his best film, but it is his most audacious and challenging. It was a step outside of his comfort zone, and proved to be an unflinching examination of a social catastrophe. It also happens to be amongst his most under-valued films and deserves a revisit.