We continue to celebrate Black History Month with the film showing of Crooklyn, Thursday, February 21st at 7:00 pm in the Science Laboratory Center, Room 120. This film gives viewers an inside look at Spike Lee’s own childhood, as this film is semi-autobiographical, based loosely on Spike Lee and his siblings’ own experiences growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  More than that, it is a charming, affecting, and thought-provoking slice-of-life focused more than any of Lee’s films on strong female characters displaying resistance and resilience.

Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his sister Joie and brother Cinqué, who are listed as associate producers and co-screenwriters. Cinqué and Joie Lee originally prepared the script as a pilot for the children’s television channel Nickelodeon before converting their idea into a screenplay. The collaboration between the three siblings on the film, with both Spike and Joie playing minor supporting roles, made for a heartfelt, tender look at life through a child’s eyes growing up in a big, chaotic family that resonated with audiences everywhere.

The Carmichael Family

Spike Lee’s own family has a very similar structure to the Carmichael family in Crooklyn. The Lees’ mother was a school teacher and their father was a jazz musician: Spike Lee is the oldest child, with three younger siblings, Joie, David, and Cinqué.  In Crooklyn, the mother Carolyn, played by Alfre Woodard, is a schoolteacher and Woody Carmichael, played by Delroy Lindo, is a jazz musician.  The film centers on the character Troy, played by Zelda Harris, a young nine-year-old girl with four brothers, three older and one younger, Clinton, Wendell, Nate, and Joseph. She finds herself surrounded by constant chaos, her brothers causing trouble with their stubborn attitudes and rambunctiousness in the house, her parents arguing and fighting, plus the neighbors adding to their everyday life with their regular stoop hangouts and back-and-forth bickering over petty dramas.

Spike Lee speaking about “One Film, One New York”

Although the storyline of Crooklyn takes place in the 1970s and the film itself was released in 1994, it is still a much-loved New York film gaining even greater recognition in recent years. Upon its initial release, Alfre Woodard was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the film was nominated for Best Family Motion Picture – Drama and Best Performance.  In 2017, the film won the contest “One Film, One New York,” in which New Yorkers voted on which of five city-related films should be shown at free screenings in cinemas and parks at the same time, on the same day, September 13, 2017, across the five boroughs of New York. Crooklyn was voted the viewers’ favorite for the honor, beating out On the Town (1949), New York, New York (1977), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and The Wedding Banquet (1993).

Zelda Harris as Troy in Crooklyn

What makes Crooklyn so unique and special is its focus and emphasis on the strong female characters, the mother, Carolyn and her only daughter, Troy. Carolyn is the matriarch of the Carmichael family, acting as the main financial source when the father can’t find work, and keeping all of her five rowdy kids in line and held responsible for their actions with a strong, firm hand. Troy is shown to be smart, charismatic, and resourceful as such a young child, following proudly in her mother’s footsteps to be every bit as strong-willed.   For her performance as Troy, Zelda Harris earned universal acclaim and a nomination for a Young Artist Award for Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture.

Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) is the strength and core of the Carmichael family

Spike Lee is known for taking creative risks with his films, and Crooklyn is no exception. Viewers can expect some of his usual stylistic flourishes, such as the floating double-dolly shot that takes a drug-addled Troy on a nighttime high.  Another is when the Carmichael family travels south to visit their relatives in Virginia: there is a subtle, but noticeable visual shift that occurs in how the film is presented. This disorienting effect is created by shooting in widescreen without anamorphically adjusting the image, so that what viewers see looks oddly compressed.  Some viewers have thought they were experiencing technical difficulties or viewing a bad copy of the film, but the effect is fully intentional, as Lee has mentioned in several interviews.

One section of the film is presented in a disorienting, distorted anamorphic widescreen intended to convey Troy’s perspective

The soundtrack of Crooklyn will get you grooving along with the film, featuring classics beloved by many, including Spike Lee. In an interview with Vulture, Lee stated how proud he was of the soundtrack: “That’s the music I grew up with. I always pick all the music to my films. I like to use my curating skills!”  Keep your ears open for songs from The Jackson 5, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Staples Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Five Stairsteps, Jean Knight, Joe Cuba, Marc Dorsey, Master Ace, SLY, Special Ed, The Chambers Brothers, The Chilites, The J.B.’s, The Persuaders, The Spinners, and the Family Stone.

Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) with her father Woody (Delroy Lindo) in Crooklyn

Crooklyn does a wonderful job of showing the rollercoaster ride of living in a big family. The ups and downs  the Carmichael family goes through causes them to grow and bond even deeper as a family, by learning to appreciate what they have and what not to take for granted in their everyday life. Crooklyn is the third film showing in our Spike Lee film series, and the admission is free and open to the public. We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Office of Inclusion and Diversity on this series honoring Black History Month.  The film is rated PG-13 for drug content but is otherwise family-friendly, so feel free to bring your loved ones and celebrate family along with Spike Lee, Monday, Feb. 18.

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Kyra Beske

Creative Digital Media & Film Studies Double Major at Winona State University. Vice President of Phi Theta Chi Sorority. Intern for Treedome.