Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: It’s 1995 Week here at The A.V. Club, which means we’re shouting out some of the forgotten or underrated triumphs of that year.
The first half of the ’90s saw a proliferation of dramas about inner-city crime, but Spike Lee took his time before jumping into that fray with Clockers, a Richard Price adaptation that debuted to some acclaim and little box office in 1995. True to Lee’s ongoing portrait of Brooklyn, the movie seems more interested in the neighborhood it portrays than the specifics of the drug trade.
Much of it is seen through the eyes of Ronald (Mekhi Phifer), also known as “Strike,” a low-level employee of Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), a local shopkeeper who fancies himself both a father figure and, when needed, fearsome boss in charge of many of the neighborhood’s young black men. Strike spends most of his time dealing from park benches, nursing a developing ulcer, and early in the film, Rodney tells him that he can move up the chain if he takes care of a rival. Soon enough, that man is dead. But the murder isn’t shown on-screen, and a question lingers over both the audience and detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel): Was Strike actually responsible for this man’s death?
Clockers has the bones of a murder mystery, but there aren’t a whole lot of suspects; in Lee’s hands, the material becomes more of a morality play mixed with a sociological case study. Strike’s choices in this neighborhood are obviously limited, but that doesn’t mean he’s making the right ones; similarly, Klein’s instincts about the murder case (and disinterest in closing it as quickly and simply as possible) are admirable, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t say some pretty racist shit. Lee doesn’t show that murder, but he does show the aftermath, where Rocco, his partner (John Turturro), and other cops poke over a bullet-riddled body, wisecracking their way through a gory amateur autopsy. Keitel also figures into a terrific late-movie sequence where he walks a neighborhood kid through the statement he needs to give to avoid irrevocably screwing up his future.
Lee isn’t in entertainer mode, but despite its mournfulness, the movie is gripping and impeccably made. This was his first of three films with cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, and together the filmmakers crank up the colors in many scenes to a high-contrast hyperrealism that makes the greens of the local park especially verdant—and the whites of interrogation-room lights especially glaring. The dialogue and, especially, the Terence Blanchard score can get a little too heavy, per Lee’s usual style, but the performances from Keitel, taciturn Phifer, and a casually terrifying Lindo are all excellent. If the inner-city crime genre of the ’90s has mostly dried up, there’s plenty about Clockers that still resonates.
Availability: Clockers is available on DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets. If you’re still buying DVDs, Clockers is also included in Universal’s Spike Lee Joint Collection box set with four other Lee movies, which can be found for dirt-cheap online.