Clockers are the lowest rung on the drug distribution ladder; they keep a consistent, ’round-the-clock vigil on an area (hence their name), always on the lookout for buyers. Clockers dream of moving up the ladder, but between persistent sweeps by narcotics cops and the near-constant threat of violent death by rivals, this dream is rarely realized, even in part.
Spike Lee’s Clockers uses the world of these drug-dealing pawns to ask some troubling questions in the framework of a genre film. But while he mostly gets the crime film aspect down, Lee exceedingly succeeds in posing the questions.
The film revolves around a young clocker named Ronald Dunham (Mekhi Phifer); the police and his family use Ronald, while everyone else calls him Strike. He’s barely out of his teens, constantly lugs a bottle of chocolate soft drink with him and spends his evenings hunched over the model train set in his living room. He’s basically a nice kid…but he just happens to deal drugs for a living.
Strike’s world is upended when the night manager of a fast food chain in the projects is killed. Strike’s brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) turns himself into the police, but his obviously false confession doesn’t make sense–Victor supports his wife and kids with two jobs, goes to church, and avoids the drugs and violence that surround him. He wants outof the projects, so why would he ruin that chance? The police think Strike did it. Strike thinks his boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo) had his loose-cannon, HIV-infected henchman commit the murder. And Rodney isn’t sure who did it; he’s just glad the fast food manager–an obstacle to his drug peddling–is out of the way.
Based on Richard Price’s novel, Clockers‘ screenplay carries most of the film’s weight. Price–with help from Lee–adapted his own novel to the screen, streamlining the bulky book without crippling it. I was initially worried, since the book really did the trick for me–Price has a remarkable ear for conversation, and the novel unceremoniously presented weighty moral dilemma after weighty moral dilemma without ever bogging down in cheesy melodrama. But the movie doesn’t suffer; my only qualm with the adaptation is that the action is moved from New Jersey to New York (which might seem minor, but Price’s book portrays the urban decay of the satellite sprawl of the Big Apple like no other).
Strike doesn’t dabble in what he sells and–though he carries a gun–is terrified of violent confrontation. But as homicide cops Rocco Kline (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilli (the always captivating John Turturro) notice, death follows Strike, and not only because he sells it daily while perched on a bench. Strike is a tragic character, too. You pity him, want him to move on. He’s sick of what he does and the quality of life in the projects. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want as a friend, a neighbor, a son. But he’s also killed or ruined countless people, a fact that he just doesn’t comprehend.
Much of the film is shown from Kline and Mazilli’s perspective, two more normal, nice guys wrecked by their jobs and what they see. Early in the film, the two arrive at a murder scene, making gallows humor and hateful slurs as police check entry and exit wounds on the victim. But you can read it in Kline’s face: I hate this life, get me out, save me. The cynicism, hate and distrust rests in he and his partner’s hearts after years of seeing what no one should see. That doesn’t excuse their behavior one bit, but Lee and Price don’t paint them as villains. Just drowning.
But Clockers really works at showing how attractive the drug-immersed lifestyle is, and simultaneously how deadly it is. Lee starts the film with a series of photographs of victims of drug-related crime, all African Americans. Lee’s extended question seems to be, why are so many young black men dying like this? The film is filled with contradicting, powerful little scenes: a young mother chastising the clockers for their lifestyle, but using violence as leverage; a well-meaning black cop constantly threatening to murder anyone that corrupts a young boy in the projects; Strike telling a young boy how important it is for him to stay in school and stay out of the clocking life, but boasting about his money and power at the same time. It’s hard stuff, and Lee lays it out without any cushioning.
If Clockers falters, though, it’s stylistically. Lee is a very capable director, but he fumbles with the crime genre. The editing is terrible in spots–sometimes a line of dialogue ends abruptly and cuts immediately to another character speaking. In fact, this happens constantly. I was quickly turned off by how choppy the movie was. And many of the scenes felt off in some ways, not flowing well from one to the next. The cinematography is a highlight, though; there is extended use of natural lighting, and sometimes the glare from the sun or fluorescent lights overpowers everything on the screen. It’s an effect that works well. The acting is absolutely top-notch, too, especially from Phifer (his first role) and Keitel.
It works in the end. Lee handles the material well, even though the actual detective/crime aspects feel haphazard. Price’s novel is probably the better investment in the long run, but as it stands the film works as an excellent conversation starter, a rich character study graced with detailed brush strokes.
-Directed by Spike Lee
-Screenplay by Spike Lee and Richard Price
-Based on the novel Clockers by Richard Price
-Cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed
-Cast: Det. Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), Det. Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), Victor Dunham (Isaiah Washingon), Andre (Keith David), Shorty (Pee Wee Love)
-Runtime: 128 minutes
-Rated R (USA)