Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Any strolling movie-tour of Brooklyn must eventually confront the fact that where you are is actually East Spikistan—Spike Lee has made the borough his personal sound stage for well over 30 years now. You have your pick of joints: Do the Right Thing (1989) is such an obvious, self-consciously anthropological choice I’ll skip right over it, while She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Jungle Fever (1991), Clockers (1995), Summer of Sam (1999) and Red Hook Summer (2012) all offer heaps of pungent specificity and authentic ‘hood vibrations. Even his career-making short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983) is a must-see modern-cultural cross-section no Brooklyn resident should be allowed to ignore. But I’ll follow my passion and go with Crooklyn (1994), one of the greatest and most loving portraits of realistic family life in American movies, and a nose-to-the-sidewalk paean to Bedford-Stuyvesant as it was in Lee’s 70s youth.
At the time, the movie made half the splash of Lee’s other first dozen features or so, probably because its nostalgic details and free-flowing semi-narrative offered American audiences too few amps of story propulsion and too few sparks of controversy. It’s a film you wade into, with no big hurry to leave, dipping in almost haphazardly into the life of the semi-autobiographical Carmichael clan, comprised of ferocious mega-mom Alfre Woodard, loving-but-lax dad Delroy Lindo, and five combative kids—the youngest of which, Troy (eight-year-old Zelda Harris), is the movie’s reigning POV. Co-written with Lee siblings Cinque and Joie, the film has woven breadth to it, focusing on wicked minutiae and perambulating from moment to moment like an exploring kid: black-asphalt jump-rope, refrigerator-box games, brownstone-stoop hangout, dancing to Soul Train, brawling with your brothers about some idiotic thing, deli shoplifting because why not, obsessing on the Knicks, ad infinitum. Almost all of it takes place on one block: Arlington Place, with its grand view of Halsey Street brownstones looking north, the ins and outs of which Lee turned into a self-contained terrarium of human bustle. As with many Lee opuses, the neighborhood is given a vivid key-light buff and shine, sometimes pushed to a romantic extreme. But the upshot is a feeling of genuine warmth, razor-cut regularly by the neighborhood’s eccentric roughness and the family’s own splenetic instability.
Pleasures are manifold: Lee is one of the best kids’ directors around, and all of the kids rock their little corners of the Carmichael universe, while Woodard fires up her best role ever, as the horde’s fearless and bullshit-intolerant traffic cop, breadwinner, judge, jury and executioner (“Put the salt down, Wendell, or I’ll pull your head off!”). With the wary reflexes and locked-in survival gaze of a war zone short-timer, Woodard’s mom as wasn’t nearly as large a role as she made it seem—which was so large her character loomed large over scenes even after her character had died, just as real moms do. One quick movement of those huge eyes can throw your back out.
And that house, at 7 Arlington—it’s meant to be ramshackle and down-market, but it looks deep and fabulous to me, and I’m not alone: today, it’s been bought and renovated and repurposed as Bedford-Stuyvesant’s poshest, most tastefully appointed bed-&-breakfast. If you have just such a jones, rooms right now go for $200 a night and up, and given how life in Bed-Stuy is being assessed these days, it’s not going to get cheaper any time soon.