Shades of Cooley High invigorate this breezy, cheerful Spike Lee effort, which he wrote with siblings Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee based on their Brooklyn upbringing in the 1970s. Indeed, much of the first half of the film plays like a series of comedic riffs based on childhood memories.
The five siblings here, along with their parents (Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo), engage in dinnertime showdowns about finishing black-eyed peas; squabbles over whether to watch the Partridge Family or the New York Knicks; and pranks with the other kids on the block (including abuse of an eccentric neighbor that’s downright homophobic). These aren’t angels, but they’re real—thanks in large part to the uniformly excellent, perfectly in sync child performances from Carlton Williams, Sharif Rashed, Chris Knowings, Tse-Mach Washington, and Zelda Harris. Like the teenagers in Cooley, these kids experience urban life not as a prison sentence, but a playground.
Harris, the best of that young cast, plays Troy, a middle child and the only girl in the family. Eventually, Crooklyn becomes her story. Troy finds herself not only negotiating the gender divide, but also that between black and white culture (she’s the Partridge fan). This comes to a head when she’s sent to spend some of the summer with her relatives down South, who have adopted a suburban, white-picket-fence lifestyle—emphasis on the white, considering one of her aunt’s first acts is to straighten Troy’s hair. Lee and cinematographer Arthur Jafa squeeze the screen during these scenes, so that everything looks stretched at top and bottom. It’s incredibly jarring (at first I thought something was wrong with my television), but also ingenious shorthand for Troy’s sense of dislocation.
Lee gets tricky elsewhere, including an upside down version of his signature dolly shot, in which characters glide along without making any effort. This time, it’s used to capture the high of two glue sniffers, one of whom is played by Lee himself. Mostly, however, Crooklyn is a relaxed portrayal of African-American domesticity, anchored by those strong performances. (Woodard and Lindo create a full-bodied portrait of a marriage even though they’re really supporting players.)
Eventually, by the third act, the movie’s heft reveals itself. When tragedy strikes—nothing melodramatic, just the sort of tragedy that too many families know all too well—you might be surprised to find yourself undone. Suddenly you realize how intricately you’ve been woven into this family’s life—into their challenges and joys, their shared lingo and loving rhythms. Case in point: there are two instances in the movie where Troy’s mother whispers something in her ear. We may not be able to hear, but we’ve become such a part of the family at this point that we don’t need to know the words. Somehow, we still understand what she means.