Director: Spike Lee
Cinematography: Malik Sayeed
Editor: Sam Pollard
Music: Terence Blanchard
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Running Time: 128 minutes
Mekhi Phifer – Strike
Delroy Lindo – Rodney
Isaiah Washington IV – Victor
Harvey Ketiel – Klein
John Turturro – Mazilli
Pewee Love – Tyrone
Tom Byrd – Errol
Steve White – Darryl
Clockers is a brilliant, brutal film. As unsparing as it is unrelenting, it puts under the cultural microscope the lives and deaths of a population trapped in the Projects, where murderous commerce in hard drugs, twisted family relationships, and a kind of Homeric hysteria about versions of honor and manhood all intermingle in a sanguinary tale of uncontrollable forces.
Two brothers fashion differing solutions for dealing with them. The plot may, at a great remove, be that of the fairy tale of the good brother and the bad brother, but its present instantiation is very much of today. This film operates by acute antitheses: black versus white, old versus young, male versus female, city versus country, love versus hate, dignity versus degradation, hope versus despair, exploiter versus exploited.
This overarching sense of polarity emerges from the opening credits. The gritty, grainly film pans over the young bodies of black men mutilated by gunshot wounds and knifings while, simultaneously, an upbeat song of high melodic lyricism accompanies these staggering visuals. The tone of contrast, even a maddening inconsistency, at the core of things permeates the film henceforth. The opening shot locates the world of the story in the looming projects out of which walks Strike, the ‘clocker’, with his ubiquitous bottle of antacid. Ulcers are eating him up, and from time to time he vomits blood, as if the life he is trying to get by on is itself cannibalizing his soul along with the body. At every stage of his waking day he is under pressure — pressure from his family, pressure from his peers, pressure from the cops, pressure from the boy (and the latter’s outraged mother) whose mentor he would be, pressure from the supplier he works for, pressure (it seems) from the very air he breathes. This is life that is anything but glamorous.
A generational thing is part of the backbone of the story. Rodney, his supplier, lets Strike know in a series of flashbacks that he had gotten into the game in a way much as Strike is doing, and it is clear that the boy, Tyrone, who looks up to Strike, is to Strike what Rodney is to Strike. Just as Rodney had had to ‘do’ some dude to prove his loyalty, so Strike ‘does’ someone Rodney puts him onto, and Tyrone ends up likewise committing murder. Although these three men are not related by blood, they are like fathers and sons, and the oppressive sense of generational curses working themselves out is almost Aeschylean. And their relationships are at heart as destructively symbiotic as anything one finds in the sad and sorry history of the House of Atreus.
Discussing from time to time what is taking place are Strike’s ‘friends’ and various bystanders, including Spike Lee in a couple of cameo roles. These peripheral characters, members of the community, are a kind of chorus providing independent commentary on the nature of the action in which the principals find themselves enmeshed. Order amid this urban chaos takes the form of the police, both black and white. To the extent that you could speak of the establishment of some kind of equilibrium in this devastated world, it is brought about not by the inhabitants themselves but by the police. Although Strike is guilty of murder, it is never conclusively proved; yet, a rough, extra-judicial justice of sorts is brought about in the end. Though satisfying, its broader implications are not pleasant to contemplate, and its effectuation merely underscores the general breakdown of social norms of behavior within this wounded universe.
Although Strike’s character is powerfully conceived, it is his brother, Victor, who comes across to me as most compelling, and certainly most sympathetic. If there is a hero in the film, I think he’s it. A family man, honest and decent, wanting a part of the American dream and working himself half to death to realize it, he gets caught up in conflicting family loyalties that almost destroy him. The one exhilarating moment in the film that may fairly be called optimistic is when he is finally released from jail and rejoins his wife and children. Somehow I felt that he would, in the long run, make it, and extricate himself and his young family from the daily horrors of the Projects.
Strike’s future is, by contrast, more problematical. He makes a run for it at the end, with the help of Klein, the homicide detective, and we last see him on the train rushing through a vast empty landscape, a striking antithesis to the claustrophobic world of dark alleys and straitened hallways of the ghetto world he is leaving behind.
Strike loves model trains, and his one release was to go home and play with his elaborate Lionel set. The model trains ran swiftly and smoothly (until he crashed them as his own world started to come crashing down around him), but the point is that they were on an infinite loop: always the same track, going round and round, fast but nowhere, an image of Strike’s own life racing to nowhere. Is there a suggestion that now, on a real train, he is out of this one-track loop and may find himself in the larger world of America beyond the confining Projects with all their overpowering impediments? Will a different environment make his escape possible?
I believe the ending is ambivalent — we see Strike’s face through the train window as if in an overlay on the reflections of the darkening landscape outside. Frankly, I have more hope for his brother.