Benefits of One-Track Narrative in Clockers

Spike Lee’s Clockers maintains a sharp focus on the struggles of low-level Brooklyn drug dealer Strike and the whodunit that ensues after Rodney, the druglord under which Strike operates, orders Strike to knock off a fellow clocker who has been taking more than his share of the drug trade profit. To a greater degree than the book from which it was adapted, Clockers hardly veers off the track of stereotype-defyingly truth-seeking and sympathetic homicide detective Rocco’s investigation of the crime. While the film could easily sink into a back-and-forth debate about who is to blame (Rocco doubts Strike’s brother’s Victor’s unswayed action despite Victor’s confession), Lee lifts it off of the ground by layering it with shrewd social commentary. He demonstrates carefully weighed meditation—a refreshing feat, given Lee’s reputation for allowing his biases to blatantly affect his work—as well as stylistic finesse. Elements of his distinct aesthetic crop up, like his placement of actors on camera dollies to give them the illusion of gliding above the ground, and shape his artistic license but do not weigh down the film. And so, Clockers feels far from formulaic or lacking in substance. In fact, Lee accomplishes more in steering straight forward than many directors do in diverging from the central narrative to address subplots. His success is largely due to the reality that the quagmire in which Strike finds himself searching to exonerate his brother and pitted against Rodney represents much more than an isolated case of murder. It serves as a lens through which we can view the broken dreams and fragile survival of drug-dealing and drug-addled “yo”s living in poverty. (Even the invented pronoun used by the police officers to refer to victims of drug-related murder, a ubiquitous incident to which they are desensitized, if calloused, bespeaks a loss of identity, one of the many harsh realities faced by the residents of the Brooklyn housing projects.) Bolstering Lee’s verisimilar portrayal of the snare of drug transaction, Mekhi Phifer’s seemingly passive performance informs us that Strike has trained himself to depend on stoicism for survival.

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