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A Family Tree Grows in Spike Lee's "Crooklyn"

The saddest thing, Spike Lee thinks, is that in some neighborhoods the children no longer know how to play street games. The streets are so unsafe the kids hide inside, and decades of childhood culture have disappeared in a generation.

"They know Nintendo and Sega," Lee said. "They've never heard of the street games most kids grew up playing."

In the opening sequence of his new film, "Crooklyn," Lee edits together what is essentially a short documentary of the kinds of games he and millions of other kids played when they were growing up: Hopscotch. Stickball. Marbles. Tops. Jacks. Skipping rope. Hide and seek. Johnny on the pony. Red light, green light. One-two-three. "Those are games any city kid learns. But when it came time to film that scene, the kids we were using didn't know what we were talking about. This whole street culture is lost forever. We had to teach them how to play those games. Some kids don't even know how to ride a bike! It was very sad."

Lee's film, co-written with his sister, Joie Lee, and brother, Cinque Lee, is based on their own childhood, growing up in a Brooklyn brownstone. In the movie, the father is a musician, the mother is a school teacher, there is never enough money in the house, but there is never a feeling of deprivation or fear. The kids live in a secure world where people look out for one another, where it's safe to hang out on the front porch, where everybody in the block knows one another, "and where," he said, "parents didn't have to think to themselves, as their children ran outside, 'That may be the last time I'm going to see my child alive'."

The streets are dangerous today, he said, and consequently, children aren't being allowed to have a childhood. "When I was growing up in the 1970s," he said, "we hadn't heard of a thing called crack. Guns? Guns were waterguns, cap guns, 007 James Bond guns, or maybe your parents would splurge and get you one of those G.I. Joe bazookas.

"If there was a fight, the utmost would be maybe a fat lip or a black eye. And the next day you'd shake hands; that'd be it. What were the life and death matters? We didn't want to do homework. A boy might beat us up. We don't want to eat black-eyed peas. How am I gonna steal this money out of my father's pocket to buy me 10 Baby Ruths?

"Nowadays, these kids, they'll shoot you dead in a second and not even think about it. The two big problems are crack, and how accessible guns are. And also, you're talking about what Reagan did during his eight years. If I was a parent, I'd be terrified anytime my children left my sight. When I was growing up, I just had to be home by dark.

If you had to power to change things, what would you change? "We have to have gun control. I mean, it's getting ridiculous, it's insane. We've gotta do something about this. That'd be No. 1. Even before dealing with the drugs."

It is all so different in the world of "Crooklyn." The focus of the movie is Troy (name), the only girl in a family with four brothers, who does a little growing up during a summer marked by a trip and a death. The movie is not intended as an autobiography, Lee said, but as a distillation of things that are remembered and imagined about that time. The character is seen through his sister Joie's eyes, and Spike said it was interesting how all of his siblings remember things differently.

"We remember the same incidents three different ways: I don't remember that. But that's what happened! No, it didn't! I just hope that this film will position my sister so she'll be able to direct her next script. Because like any screenwriter, there are things that she didn't agree with--but she bit the bullet because she understood that I'm directing this movie. And on top of that, I'm her big brother! That made it even worse.

"It really wasn't my intent to make a film that reminisced about this grand old time back in the 1970's," he said. "I just wanted to tell the story of this young girl who was coming of age during that time. And also to show an African-American family that was not dysfunctional; that was headed by two parents. The mother and the father were there and none of the children were on drugs or rapists or murderers, whatever. And despite the fact there's a lot of conflict amongst the siblings, there's a great amount of love in this family for each other."

Lee's film is opening at about the same time that another film, Matty Rich's "The Inkwell," also shows middle-class black family life in about the same period. Both films are rare because so many images of African-Americans, in movies and on TV, are centered on violence. "I think what people really have to get around is that African-Americans in this country is not one monolithic group; we're just as diverse as anybody else."

Not many films will show you, as "Crooklyn" does, that one of the big debates among the kids in a black household in the 1970s was whether to watch the "Partridge Family" or the "Brady Bunch." "Children in general at that time were motivated by two things," Lee said. "TV and sugar. That works hand-in-hand. When you watch television, you ask for, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Puffs, all that stuff. We were all sugar addicts."

Of all the shows you could have picked for them to watch, you picked the "Partridge Family."

"In our house when we were growing up, we only had one television. We weren't allowed to watch television on school nights. So Friday nights came around, and the Knicks were usually on Channel 9. They were on against the Partridge Family and the Brady Bunch and what was on the TV was decided by a vote. So I tried to lobby with my brothers and sister: 'I'll give you a piece of candy. I'll give you a dollar. Just let me watch the game!' I always got outvoted and we had to watch those shows."

He smiled. This was during a Chicago visit to talk about "Crooklyn," which is Lee's gentlest and most quietly humorous (and sad) film. There are glimpses in his "Mo' Better Blues" of a similar family (that film had a bright kid with a musician for a father) but in "Crooklyn" the family is the whole focus. And as in "Do the Right Thing," Lee paints a portrait of a city block as a backdrop. We meet the nutty next-door neighbor, landladies, the neighborhood kids, the local merchants, and even a couple glue-sniffers who are a harbinger of evil times to come ("We were always terrified of the glue-sniffers," Lee remembers, "because glue fried their brains").

Some of the events in the movie come as a surprise, and should not be revealed here. Other moments are the stuff of everyday life, as when the parents (played by Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard) get into fights about money, or when the father proudly announces he is giving a solo piano concert--on the same night when the oldest boy has a ticket to a Knicks championship game.

The mother tells her son he must choose for himself between his father and the Knicks. He chooses the Knicks. We see the concert, and then, later that night, the son comes home and stands in the hallway and says softly, "Knicks are world champs." But there is no joy in his voice.

"He loved being at the game," Lee said, "but at the same time he realized how much it would have meant to his father if he had come. And he chose to see the Knicks win that first NBA championship." That last little verbal detail--that it was the Knicks' first championship--isn't in the movie. It would seem to suggest that Spike Lee is speaking not just about the movie, but about a particular game in a particular season...and that perhaps he was the son who chose to go to the game. I met Lee for the first time in 1986, at the Cannes Film Festival, where his first feature, "She's Gotta Have It," premiered. He was quickly positioned as the nation's top African-American director, although today the qualifier "African-American" would be dropped, and he would be put in Hollywood's front ranks. He projects an angry image at times, as when he feuded with Universal over the budgeting of his epic "Malcolm X," but such feuds are no different than those most directors routinely find themselves in, and I have always thought of Lee as being gentler and more thoughtful than his public persona would suggest--with more humor and romanticism. Look, for example, at a daring sequence in "Crooklyn" where he shows Troy's visit to her affluent relatives in Virginia. She goes to spend part of summer vacation with a girl cousin she's never met, and an uncle and aunt who seem other-worldly in their accents, their elaborate southern manners, and their middle-class respectability. To show how alien this world seems to Troy, Lee films all of the southern scenes using a visual device that makes that world seem thin and elongated. It's as if you're watching a wide-screen movie through the wrong lens, and everybody looks anorexic. Does the device work? I sensed some impatience with it at the screening I attended.

"We knew that some people were going to hate it," Lee said. "They might even go up to the projection booth and knock on the window and say, 'Fix the lens.' But I felt it was important to try something new; to try to be innovative, try to tell a story a different way."

My personal impulse was to go with it, because it shows Lee experimenting with a new visual way of expressing his character's state of mind. Not one director in 500 would have thought to take a chance like that. What it shows, for me, is that Lee loves film itself--loves what you can do with it physically, how you can play with it. And that is the mark of an artist.

Lee may also sense a mission to paint those parts of the African-American experience that are ignored in the general media. One of his next films, he said, may be a fiction version of "Hoop Dreams," the extraordinary, still-unreleased documentary about two Chicago high school basketball players.

"For the most part," he said, "Hollywood's gonna make two types of film about black people. They're either going to make a comedy, or the gangsta, hip-hop, rap, drugs, shoot-'em-up 'hood films. There's not one African-American dramatic show on television. Most of it is 30-minute sitcoms where the characters are being buffoonish. That's all they make, so those are the only two things you're gonna see.

"We've been denied access for so long. African-American cinema, as far as Hollywood's concerned, is in its infancy. If you look in films as compared to what we've done in music, what we've done in art, sports, there's no comparison. I don't think African-American cinema's produced any Michael Jordan, Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. We will, but it's gonna take time."

Lee is generally considered the leader of the new generation (including John Singleton and the Hughes brothers) who will lead the charge. He may also be thinking about fathering a new generation in a more personal way. Lee got married for the first time seven months ago. He once told me that if he ever had children, he wanted "five boys and no girls." A basketball team. I asked him if he still felt that way. "After directing five kids in this movie," he said. "I'd want one girl. And less boys."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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