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Bechdel Test Canon: Crooklyn

Crooklyn

Writer-director Spike Lee is a contentious figure, especially regarding gender politics. His debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, established this reputation by depicting rape as consensual between the polyamorist female lead and her vindictive partner, resulting in bell hooks' seminal essay, "Whose Pussy Is This?" In subsequent releases, Lee has been criticized as sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic in his constructions of relatively unformed, castrating women and the limited narrative arcs they traverse. Thus, many detractors may not think a movie of his could pass the Bechdel Test, much less have a complex black girl character at its center.

Likewise, when people think about girls, whiteness and blondness are privileged. We tend to think about Mad Men's Sally Draper rather than opine on what her housekeeper Carla's children might be like, as we never see them. However, girls of color have to be brought into the discussion. I recently attended SUNY Cortland's Reimagining Girlhood conference. During the plenary, one of the panelists shared a story about proposing to write her thesis on film representations of black girls. She intended to use this movie as the cornerstone of her argument. Her adviser did not believe this to be a worthwhile endeavor, though thankfully she refused and completed the project she intended.

Lee's 1994 feature Crooklyn is exceptional for a few reasons. For one, it is his most explicitly autobiographical, drawing from the director and his siblings coming of age in the 1970s. For another, brother Cinqué and sister Joie are credited alongside Lee as screenwriters. Finally, it is one of the few titles in his filmography that focuses on black girls. The other example in his oeuvre that prioritizes black girls with paralleled insight and sensitivity is his 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls, which interrogates the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Crooklyn documents the summer of 1973, as experienced by Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris), a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident and the only girl in a working-class family of four brothers. Despite familial hardships, Troy's existence is relatively peaceful. While I appreciate Lee Daniels' Precious, an adaptation of Sapphire's novel Push that drew from the author's experience teaching troubled and systemically disenfranchised girls of color in 1980s inner-city New York, I also welcome a movie that doesn't presume that black girls are illiterate incest survivors who are doomed to abject poverty by a failed, racist political system. I also delight in seeing New York City boroughs during the metropolis' decline that exist outside of James Wolcott's nostalgia for its grit and Jody Rosen's weariness toward romanticizing it. Girls like Precious and Troy exist within and outside of these sociogeographic contexts.

As the lone female sibling, Troy is often integrated into her brothers' activities. She wrestles, plays ball, negotiates their bathroom habits, watches Soul Train and televised broadcasts of war movies, and shares candy with them. Thus some of her experiences are filtered through references to the New York Knicks playing in the NBA Finals or songs by Cymande, the Chi-Lites, and the Staple Singers. Troy "the Boy," as she is sometimes referred, is thus exposed to taunting and pranks that skate the edge between congenial and mean-spirited.

Troy and her brothers

Troy's understanding of adult women is twinged with much fascination over her developing sexuality. In one scene, she witnesses neighbor Connie (RuPaul), forcefully explaining to Tito (Hector M. Ricci) that her hot pants don't indicate that she's for sale. The run-in leaves such an impression that she later acts it out. Troy's negotiation of pubescent male and adult female behavior informs her exchanges with female peers. She has an acrimonious relationship with Peanut (Kewanna Bonaparte), a neighborhood bully. On the stoop, she often gets into heated discussions with other girls. One such exchange focuses on hair, with the group woefully picking on Minnie (Tiasha Reyes), a girl of Puerto Rican extraction with "good hair."

The political implications of African American women's hair maintenance manifests itself again when Troy embarks on a trip to Virginia to visit Aunt Song (Frances Foster) and Uncle Clem (Norman Matlock), who are light-skinned, staunchly middle-class, and assimilable to white society. During her stay, Song styles Troy's hair in relaxed pigtails, condescendingly dismissing the braids and beads her mother put in, which Aunt Maxine (Joie Lee) anticipates will not go over well when she picks Troy up from the airport upon her return. The tensions between beauty ideals upheld by dark-skinned and light-skinned femininity surfaced in Lee's School Daze and continue to be negotiated here.

Mark D. Cunningham notes in an essay on the movie's references to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz included in The Spike Lee Reader that Lee and cinematographer Arthur Jafa used an anthropomorphic lens in the Southern scenes. This results in an elongated vertical image that contrasts sharply with the rest of the movie. Apart from disorienting the viewer like a trip down the rabbit hole, it also may suggest the family's moral rectitude. Song attempts to instill Christian values in her daughter Viola (Patriece Nelson). The media consumed by the two families is quite different. Eschewing Soul Train and Curtis Mayfield, Song's family watches televangelist programming and listens to the Jackson Five, which could be interpreted to represent Motown's aspirations toward crossing over into mainstream (re: white) society. Nonetheless, Viola and Troy develop a strong friendship conveyed by scenes that depict them jumping rope and having slumber parties.

But the most important female figure in Troy's life is her mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), a harried but loving college professor who is trying to raise her children to be responsible, politically conscious individuals. She is also trying to work through a strained relationship with her husband Woody (Delroy Lindo), a struggling jazz performer who is clearly supposed to stand in for the director's father, musician Bill Lee. Carolyn's bond with her daughter is especially poignant. Apart from being the two female presences in the house, Carolyn sees singular fortitude and possibility in Troy. Their scenes together are the heart of the movie.

Troy and Carolyn

Thus, it is especially frustrating that Carolyn suddenly succumbs to cancer at the end of the movie. This development follows a scene where Song's beloved dog Queenie is suffocated, which is also regrettable. Killing off the mother is lazy screenwriting, a charge I also will wage against the movie I will discuss in Friday's installment. There is no clear need to kill off Carolyn other than to suggest the end of Troy's innocence. It also potentially rescinds the authority Carolyn cultivated in her household, which could read as an unintentional indictment against powerful black women. However, Troy proves capable of taking on her mother's responsibilities, like disciplining her brothers and tending to their hair. But I do not think Troy replaces her mother or loses her girlhood. The final scene features Troy sporting a self-styled Afro and surveying her block. While this is clearly a show of allegiance and remembrance of her Afrocentric mother, it may also suggest that this ten-year old isn't done exploring the neighborhood and the world outside of it.

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Comments

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I agree with most this

I agree with most this article. As a Black man (and hetero/feminist) I've spent most of my life having a love/hate relationship with my skin, my hair, and my feelings about Spike Lee films. I could write a book about the mixed feelings his films bring out in me (including sometimes cartoonish characterisations), the hypocritical generalisation of him as "just an angry Black film-maker", and how most White critics - when assembling their "Best Films of the 2000s" lists - were listing 25th Hour the way a politician would admit to scandal. But I digress...

The part of this article with which I take issue is the idea that Lee killed off the character of Troy's mother (Alfre Woodard) as a result of "lazy screen-writing". It's odd that Ms. Vesey mentions in this article the presence, or lack thereof, of strong Black women in Lee's films and yet the article gives little mention Lee's sister, Joie, on whom the character of Troy is based. As Ms. Vesey mentions, Crooklyn is indeed "explicitly autobiographical"... to Joie Lee who co-wrote the screenplay. That's why the film - which seems on the surface to be merely a warm nostalgia piece in the vein of Dazed & Confused and American Graffiti (also films with more depth than what the surface belies) - includes such specific incidents as the young girl's trip down South, the neighbourhood shenanigans, and the death of her mother. The Lee's mother, Jacqueline, died of cancer in 1976, leaving young Joie as "the woman of the house".

As valid as it is to debate to the story arcs of women in Lee's films, from Girl 6 to She Hate Me, I dispute Ms. Vesey's claim that the death of Caroline Carmichael was born out of some arbitrary screenwriting choice. Quite the contrary: it was the most "explicitly autobiographical" element of the entire film.

Fair point, Buddy-L. I

Fair point, Buddy-L. I actually didn't address the death of Lee's mother because I was unclear if that part of the story was autobiographical. I had read that Lee denied the movie was a strict autobiography and didn't want to attribute anything without being certain. Since I wasn't sure, I didn't want to make any gross projections.

However, I do think the way in which it is dropped in seems rather clumsy. There's some mention of Carolyn being sick and Troy claims not to be surprised by her mother's death. So I'll throw it back to you. Did Jacqueline's cancer escalate quickly or go untreated for a long time, thus making her death seem too sudden? Is the hasty manner in which Carolyn's cancer is introduced to the family and audience reflective of Jacqueline's and her children's experiences?

Also, I should have explicitly stated that Troy is based on Joie, taking for granted that it was assumed. Thanks for emphasizing it.

Alyx Vesey

Admittedly, I don't know

Admittedly, I don't know off-hand the pace at which the late Mrs. Lee's cancer progressed. Nor do I know at which point of said progression her children were told in relation to the time of her death. I've heard and read Spike Lee discuss the incident on occasion, but never in regards to timeline. If I were to base it on what was shown in the film, I would imagine it quite a sudden shock to the family (something I know all too well). But that's a moot point.

If anything, the raw emotional nature of the film (even in its "happy" scenes) is what connects with me most. Knowing that it was drawn from real incidents in the lives of the film-makes, I merely found it a bit callous to refer to the dramatisation of such incidents, particularly when re-living the death of a matriarch, as merely plot devices (let alone "bad" plot devices).

Still, from the perspective of simply a film-watcher, I see your perspective.

Awesome article!

Awesome article!