Spike Lee made his name as a director by showing audiences things they rarely see on screen: an independent African-American woman in She's Gotta Have It, interracial love in Jungle Fever, simmering racism in Do the Right Thing and a black political hero named Malcolm X. His boldness, in message and technique, established Lee as a most original filmmaker.
Clockers is the latest Spike Lee "joint" _ his slang for a movie _ and even with its faults, it's another measure of his talent. He's covering very familiar turf here; Brooklyn streets jazzed by cocaine trade and occasionally bloody, with angry young African-Americans versus harsh authority. The fact that Lee makes these elements as mesmerizing as his previous works, with new insights, is impressive.
A complex script, based on Richard Price's novel (and co-authored by Price and Lee), is raised a few notches by the dreamy turmoil concocted in Clockers.
Newcomer Mekhi Phifer shifts between wired enthusiasm and introspection as Strike, a low-level drug dealer (or clocker) who becomes a prime suspect in a murder case investigated by a pair of rough cops (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro). The intrigue never reaches the same level of fascination as Lee's depiction of street life, which includes a welcome number of positive role models. Whether they are heeded or ignored is Strike's conflict, and the core of the film.
Strong performances, edgy dialogue and Lee's success in luring an audience into his own tempo and urgent perspective make Clockers tough stuff, indeed.
Clockers Grade: B+
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, Delroy Lindo, John Turturro
Rating: R; violence, profanity
NOTE: A complete review of Clockers will appear in Friday's Weekend section.