' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Clockers

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Some Drivel On...Clockers

The title of Spike Lee’s “Clockers” (1995), culled from Richard Price’s novel of the same name, refers to crack cocaine dealers who work around the clock. An early scene shows them in their element, whip panning from the middleman to the dealer to the buyer, the camera positioned far away and low, as if we are investigative reporters taking notes on how the process works. Despite this, Lee eschews a docudrama or even a character study of clockers to provide a more patented, heightened portrayal of the vicious social pressures facing young black Americans within the nominally friendly environments of their own neighborhoods. The city block of “Do the Right Thing” transforms into a project in “Clockers”, the looming apartment towers rising up, looking for all the world like watchtowers keeping the clockers, who congregate on the park benches below, fenced in, mired in the cycle. The inevitable end point of that cycle is outlined in the sensational, somber opening credits, myriad recreations of grisly crime photos, young black men shot dead on the street, blood streaming from their mouths, brains on the cement. These photos are recreations of real ones, meaning that despite the dramatic license, Lee is doing nothing less than putting the truth right in your face.

The neighborhood’s ranking drug peddler, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), wants a rival dealer (Steven Adams) rubbed out, ordering, if not in so many words, one of his clockers, Strike (Mekhi Phifer), to do the job as rewards will follow. Strike, though, doesn’t have the stomach for killing, evoked in the ulcer eating him alive, and tries persuading his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) to carry out the killing instead, preying on Victor’s good heart. Not long after, the rival dealer turns up dead. Pointedly, Lee does not show us the murder, just the aftermath, the body strewn on the sidewalk and Victor’s subsequent incarceration even as Detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) suspects it might have been Strike. It’s a whodunit, then, though Lee is less interested in charting a true investigative narrative than using it as a frame for the larger questions. The foremost question is dynamically presented in an early back and forth between several clockers about rappers, whether the only real rappers are the ones who live a suitably raw, hard lifestyle or the ones who preach positivity and a need for social change. These contrasting ideas are lived out in the dueling storylines of Strike and Victor.

Victor’s upstanding nature is conveyed in flashback scenes where we see him working security at a small shop and a managing a fast food restaurant, respectively talking an apparent junkie away from the store and chasing a few clockers away from trying to set up shop. The crude lighting suggests an exploitation movie which suggests Victor being exploited by the system in which he is simply trying to survive unbothered. Indeed, in Washington’s ever so slightly quavering body language, you sense his omnipresent struggle not to be pulled under and how subsequent violence can stem not so much from being pulled under but from the unrelenting pressure of trying to be pulled under. As delicate as Washington’s turn is, Phifer’s is more external and aggressive, maintaining a menacing front to fit in with his brethren even though the chocolate milk he drinks, stemming from the ulcer, in contrast to his cohorts’ malt liquor, renders him as something more akin to a lost little kid.

If he’s a lost little kid, that makes him susceptible to Rodney, one of those most terrifying characters rounded out with one of the most terrifying performances I can recall. Maintaining a friendly front called Rodney’s Place where he gives kids a place to hang out, proffering the kind of advice you would expect from any responsible elder, dutifully cleaning his arcade game machines, evoking someone who takes pride in his place. Yet that pride in cleanliness is juxtaposed against how he floods the neighborhood with crack while the manner in which he councils Strike, frequently pulling up alongside him in a car and inviting him in, draws the parallel of child abuse, a detrimental father figure luring everyone into his web, rendered all the more chilling by how calmly Lindo plays the part, even in his character’s moments of extreme violence.

Rocco, meanwhile, in convincing himself of Victor’s innocence and Strike’s guilt, to the disagreement of his partner (John Turturro) who just wants to close the case and move on, becomes a variation of the lone cop seeking justice. In discovering the truth as he saw it wasn’t quite the truth, however, he finds not justice but something far murkier, an open and shut case and no answer to society’s broader failures. And though Rocco is given no backstory, the decisions the character makes fill in the multi-dimensional blanks, cracking racist jokes but also talking a young black kid through a police confession to ensure he doesn’t ruin his life. Eventually, Rocco gets Strike out of town with explicit orders not to return. The concluding scenes, in which Strike takes an Amtrak cross-country, almost feel as if they are excised from another film, one probably featuring a white person, making me think of the moment from the 2015 documentary “In Transit” when an incredulous black man waves off a white woman’s lament that she is riding the rails because she’s at a crossroads as mere vacation. Strike is not on vacation and he is not at a crossroads; he’s broken the cycle. 

No comments: