Crooklyn Review

Crooklyn is a more personal project from Spike Lee, presumably intended as a change of pace after the epic subject matter and running time of Malcolm X. Written in collaboration with sister Joie (who originated the story) and brother Cinque, this is a semi-autobiographical look at their family and their childhood, set in 1973. Carolyn Carmichael (Alfre Woodard) lives with her jazz musician husband Woody (Delroy Lindo) and their five children. The film depicts the struggle of the family to stay together: Woody doesn’t bring home much money so the burden on Carolyn is all the greater. We see this through the viewpoint of ten-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris).

With this film, Lee is consciously working on a smaller scale, and making a film intended for all the family to watch. There’s little violence and no profanity; the PG-13 rating (a 12 in the UK) is due to a few scenes of glue sniffing. The mood is bittersweet and nostalgic without being too sentimental, aided by on-screen extracts from TV shows of the time, and contemporary pop music on the soundtrack. It’s a warm-hearted, at times sad film that goes on for too long at just under two hours. It’s nicely acted too, not just by Woodard and Lindo, but also by David Patrick Kelly as the family’s annoying neighbour, and also by the various children in the cast.

However, there is one notable flaw in Crooklyn. Lee has never been a realist, and throughout the films in this box set you can trace an interest in visual stylisation which is perhaps a little selfconscious in the earlier films. The problem here isn’t a criticism of the photography by new DP Arthur Jafa (Lee regular Ernest Dickerson having gone on to a directorial career), which for most of the film conveys a warm tone. It’s an aesthetic decision that almost derails the film entirely. Two-thirds of the way through, the family goes to visit Zelda’s aunt in the countryside, and to convey the disorienting effect of this episode, Lee shoots the sequence through an anamorphic lens while still maintaining the 1.85:1 ratio. (See the screengrab below.) For twenty minutes or so, the picture is noticeably squeezed. Such use of an anamorphic lens is not common – the only other example I can think of offhand are the dream sequences in Shock Corridor, which were the only colour footage in an otherwise black and white film – possibly because it’s distracting and it doesn’t work. At least the clips in Shock Corridor are brief. Apparently cinemas showing Crooklyn had notices at the box office advising patrons that there was nothing wrong with the projector. One wonders how many people may be tempted to return this non-faulty DVD to the shop.

Crooklyn forms part of Universal’s five-film Spike Lee Joint Collection. The film is placed on its own DVD-5 disc and is encoded for Region 1 only.

Once again, there’s no problems with the DVD transfer, which is in the ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Jafa’s camerawork is darker-toned than you might expect, though this is no doubt intentional. But the important aspects are in place: colours are vibrant (reds especially), the picture is as sharp as it should be and blacks are solid.

By 1994, when Crooklyn was made, digital sound was becoming established and quickly obligatory, at least for a major-studio release. On this DVD, Crooklyn gets a 5.1 mix, though it isn’t greatly different in its use to the 2.0 surround tracks used on the earlier films. The surrounds do service to the music score and to ambient sounds. There’s the occasional directional effect which is more noticeably “placed” than it would be on a 2.0 mix. There’s not much use for the subwoofer except for the bass lines of the songs on the soundtrack. There are eighteen chapter stops. No extras.

Crooklyn is a small film, but it’s an attractive one that shows the warmer side of its co-writer and director. This has never been one of Lee’s most widely shown films (it’s one of two I hadn’t seen before reviewing this box set, the other being Mo’ Better Blues) so for fans that may be an added reason to buy it. You also have four other films, so value for money is not in question.

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