* * * (A must-see)

Directed by Spike Lee

Written by Lee and Richard Price

With Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, Mekhi Phifer.

Originally conceived as a vehicle for Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, the movie Clockers, based on Richard Price’s acclaimed crime novel, has taken on a different complexion in the hands of director Spike Lee. He rewrote the screenplay with Price, sentencing the police to the periphery and moving the “clockers,” or low-level drug dealers, to center stage (as Lee says, “That stuff with [the cops] going through midlife crises–we got rid of that shit. We’ve seen that stuff in cop movies before”). The collaboration between screenwriter and director ended up benefiting the film by creating fully realized characters on both sides of the thin blue line. The drug dealers are more believable than one would expect in a film about cops, and the cops are more believable than one would expect in a film about drug dealers.

Drug kingpin Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo) recruits one of his street dealers, teenager Strike Dunham (20-year-old newcomer Mekhi Phifer) to kill Darryl (Steve White), a dealer who’s stealing from him. The police arrest Strike’s brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), who’s trying to lead a “legit” life, working 65 hours a week. In the course of the investigation, Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) comes to believe that he and his partner Larry Mazilli (John Turturro) have arrested the wrong man.

There’s no dialogue in the opening sequence, but rather a montage of music and movement so fluidly choreographed, so seamlessly cut, it recalls silent cinema. We see a drug deal in which the characters communicate from a distance, using a vast network of runners and lookouts; we’re in its midst, yet to get any closer might imperil our anonymity. Lee utilizes a grab bag of cinematic techniques and musical styles to reinvigorate the gangster movie: interrogation scenes are shot with silvery overhead lighting, blanketing figures like gossamer; flashbacks have the cheap gaudiness of a brutal exploitation movie; some daylight scenes look like they were filmed during a solar eclipse; characters appear frozen in surreal environments through the simultaneous tracking and zooming effect Hitchcock used in Vertigo; television commercials are blown up to fill the entire screen, emphasizing their garish stupidity; and video games prefigure actual events. Clockers is part romantic noir, part blaxploitation, part documentary, and part cultural critique.

In the past Lee’s white characters tended to be stereotypes, such as the greedy Jewish managers in Mo’ Better Blues or the slobbering Italian Neanderthals in Jungle Fever. Even John Turturro’s character in the latter film was, as Rocco Klein says of Victor Dunham in Clockers, “one of the good ones,” an exception that proves the rule. For most of Clockers we are in a poor African-American community, and we tend to see the police as the community does: during drug busts, murder investigations, and graft payoffs. Yet Price did extensive research before crafting his novel, and it pays off in the raw vitality of the cops’ language: they may talk in procedural jargon, but they’re too alive to be cliches, their dialogue too dense and naturalistic to give the impression of one-dimensionality.

Like Scorsese’s GoodFellas, Clockers gives us a privileged look at a world most of us don’t know. Unlike GoodFellas, Clockers is the film of a didact (Rosa Parks’s name even pops up during a beating!). In GoodFellas, the concept of morality has vanished, and the film ends with Ray Liotta bemoaning the fact that he can no longer hang with killers–he’s just a poor, powerless schmuck like the rest of humanity. By contrast, Spike Lee has always been moralistic, and most of his films play like R-rated Afterschool Specials. Even the critically acclaimed Malcolm X was as heavy-handed and mediocre as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi: watching it makes you feel like you’re on a seventh-grade field trip. But in Clockers Lee wittily subverts his own pedantic conventions by making nearly every character a preacher or teacher. Rodney’s drug-addicted assassin Errol warns Strike about the evils of heroin and tells a fatherless boy, “I’m your daddy now. Your mama know you’re out here?” A crack dealer tells a pregnant woman, “You gotta maintain that. This is the last I’m sellin’ ’cause I gotta protect that little ‘fro.” Strike tells a young protege, “I catch you playin’ hooky, I’ll bust a cap in yo ass.” He’s actually wielding a pistol as he delivers this admonition. Then Strike asks him a math question. “Martin wants to cut his half-pound of heroin to make 20 percent more profit. How many ounces of cut will he need?” (That question, remarkably similar to the one in the movie, is actually from a test administered in a Chicago Public School last year.) Rodney, a father figure and mentor to the neighborhood children, cuts hair and dispenses advice. In one exchange Rodney has the youngsters sit in a circle and extend their hands in solidarity. “What you all see?” he asks. “Black,” they answer. “Well,” says Rodney, “you’re supposed to be seein’ green.”

Lee once again assumes the role of a teacher, responsible to his African-American audience. The closing credits end with a gavel crashing down like a call to arms and Malcolm X’s words “By any means necessary.” Lee probably never thinks of product placement as a money-making strategy because he sees consumer products as part of the problem: looming in the background of murder scenes are advertisements for “Da Bomb, 110% Malt Liquor”; the Sega game all the kids are infatuated with is called “Gangsta.”

A couple years ago a letter circulated among Chicago Public School students encouraging gang activity because gang violence was accomplishing the goals of the Ku Klux Klan. Purportedly written by a white racist, the language in this document was offensive, yet you couldn’t help but suspect the person who wrote it, white or black, was actually attempting to counter its professed intent. Lee constructs similar arguments in Clockers. Darryl works at Ahab’s, a fast-food joint where he serves crack with the shrimp. He confronts Strike outside the restaurant and disses him. “We don’t got no Mylanta,” he says, mocking Strike for having an ulcer. “No pussy-bismal.” Grabbing the tiny mock revolver on his neck chain, he yells, “Boom! Got you!” He cackles as Strike flinches. Darryl is haughty and cocky and powerful. In the next scene he’s a corpse, the butt of nasty jokes. The cops lift his head, and stuff leaks out from a bullet hole in the back. “The kid had brains,” says Rocco. “Another stain on the sidewalk,” says his partner Larry. Dead bodies are the natural result of hostility, aggression, and attitude. Shown in gory detail, the corpse is treated with the utmost contempt by the white policemen who gather to investigate. One cop says to Larry, “We should blow these projects to Timbuktu.” “No,” Larry replies, “we don’t have to. They kill themselves anyway. It’s like a self-cleaning oven.”

A typical conversation in Clockers begins, “What the fuck you lookin’ at?” It usually ends, “Shut up, nigger.” One drug dealer despises the rap group Public Enemy because “Chuck D [can’t] be the hardest. He ain’t ever shot nobody!” For obvious reasons, the characters have built up defenses, protective walls that make it difficult to read their emotions or get inside their heads. We only know that Strike is in turmoil because his ulcer causes him to cough up blood. No matter how he tries to cover up, it gives him away. The conceit of the film is that nobody can take the pressures of life in such an antagonistic environment without exploding. The only character who tries to defuse the hostility rather than responding in kind is Victor, but he’s trying to live by a code alien to his environment. He isn’t rewarded financially for his efforts and wins no respect as a “burger boy.” The constant challenges to his manhood are degrading, and living by this code exhausts him. Clockers claims that such a burden is too heavy, that it’s impossible to expect even the best of us (at least among the men) to carry that weight and continue to lead moral lives.

Spike Lee plays a spectator during the police investigations of the murders that begin and conclude the film. Carrying a bottle of malt liquor that’s almost as big as his body, he’s a parody of a fan at a sporting event, with more respect for the impact of the hit than for the pain of the victim. “That boy got shot up,” he says. The streets have become a cop show and Da Bomb has anesthetized him to violence. At the end he uses almost exactly the same words, “That kid… got shot up.” He’s oblivious to the pain because it’s become routine. An audience gathers behind the police line. The tragedy is that they’re watching a rerun.