Entertainment

The Film that Helped Me Accept My Lower Class Roots

In Spike Lee’s ‘Crooklyn,’ I finally saw a functional family that didn’t rely on a middle class ideal.
October 30, 2017, 5:27pm
Image sources: Wikipedia Commons 

In an early Crooklyn scene, the main family, the Carmichaels are having dinner, and Troy's brother nate screams "Black eyed peas are nasty!" The baby of the family Joseph, meanwhile yells "I'm not really hungry," as Troy (Zelda Harris), the main character herself, casually tends to a lemon; the essence of chill. After the back and forth's ends, we see the family go silent before the prayer begins.

When I first saw this scene, you couldn't wipe away my grin. They did me, that was my ritual. That orchestrated whine of complaints that I mouthed before our family bowed heads. Sure, I didn't grow up with a set of annoying brothers, but I was every bit of a problem next to every single one of the boys in that film, and it was only my mom that could put a stop to it with her "hush your mouth!" before our prayer.

There was something about this 1994 Spike Lee film that spoke my truth and normalized my living situation. Sure, I felt some version of it at the time, but I definitely didn't have the words express how that movie made me truly feel. Rewatching it a random weekend ago brought back an opportunity to delve a little deeper into my feels at the time.

The movie itself of course was partially based on Lee's own life; was set during a summer in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of 1973. It followed this wise nine-year-old girl named Troy (Zelda Harris), her brothers, along with her mom and dad that went through the everyday trials and tribulations of a "lower-class" black family.

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It's a "class" I always understood. Recognize that at the age of 12, I was still sharing a bed with my mom. It's a damn weird thing to imagine for most folks that grow up young, with their actual young-people-bedrooms - Teen Mag clippings on walls, all that good shit. But this was my normal. I lived in a one bedroom apartment on Lawrence Heights, Toronto, with its narrow, brown coloured hallway of Christian ornaments. Its modest bedroom of even more Christian ornaments. And a grey carpeted living room that connected to a side kitchen with its yellow flowered window drapings. Between my pre-internet moments of doing the kickball thing across the street or hustling over marbles, I experienced a lot in that small space that shaped me. But I also used to be ashamed of it.

Fast forward to my Birthday on October 28th, 1995. My cousin tosses me this unwrapped and used VHS tape. On this colourful box of course, it reads Crooklyn, with the subheading, A Spike Lee Joint. I wasn't some connoisseur of Spike's work at the time, but I remember how the cover alone brought out something simple and tribal in me: A shot of a black family smiling it up on a stoop; the dad laughing his head off, the girl getting her hair braided by her mother, two brothers tossing a ball, and a record player just sitting on those steps like it was a part of all that blackness. They didn't have that Fresh Prince wealth on them, or that Cosby Show capitol, but they looked pretty damn functional.

Crooklyn was so different from any of Spike Lee's previous work. Arguably, it's actually one of Spike Lee's most non-Spike-Lee films. Absent were the confrontational messages that came from Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing or Jungle Fever. Instead, it opted to reflect a life seen so little in entertainment in the way that a lower-class black family can still be functional in a struggle-filled environment. Television shows like Sanford and Sons, That's My Mama, and Good Times all did that in the 70s, but it was a hard time period to see myself in as a 90s kid. What Spike managed to do with Crooklyn however was contemporize the 70s setting, removing that era's bombastic cringe. It placed a laser focus on a small space of life and a single family without playing too much to the years. And displayed it in all the normal choices of clothing, the recognizable sayings and in the intimate ways in which the film was shot.

Every scene felt tight and enclosed. Whether it was a childish argument on a stoop, or Troy and her brothers on a single bed watching the Partridge Family—that would have been Souuull Traaaiin in my case—but the point is that it all symbolized something that looked perfectly normal, despite the hints of poverty (food stamps and unpaid electric bills).

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My own play room was a small closet that contained woman's shoes. I sat on the floor due to a lack of room while my aunt and mom sat on a coach in front of our wood panelled tube TV. And I recieved belt lashes over giving lip that usually rickashayed against nearby walls whenever I took off running, because again, small space. In Crooklyn, when Troy's father Woody has an argument with her mother over whether the brothers should watch the Knicks game, a large fight takes place on their stairs, with everyone pulling at someone. This wasn't domestic violence as some middle-class hero might label it; this was a black family having a moment of damn frustration. When I used to speak about similar moments, like when my mom smacked me over a swear word—with the follow up of me daring her to hit me again—I'd get get gasps from middle-to-high class story listeners. But again, that was my normal, much like The Carmichael's felt pretty damn normal.

And in that way, I reasoned with how functional and happy my family looked from a distance through Crooklyn, even when I was too embarrassed to have a birthday party at my spot because we didn't have enough room. Or when I shoplifted once just like Troy because I was tired of the "we don't have the money for that," proverb. Each chaotic, struggle filled scene was a piece to their happiness—the kind that I once only associated with folks that were living with adopted nephews in Bel-Air.

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When the 80s and 90s rolled around, the measurement for that ideal black family was changed from the happy but struggle-rich 70s, to the upper-middle class. Like the previously mentioned Fresh Prince, Family Matters, or Cosby Show; you rarely saw the chaotic physical arguments, or clockwork moments like when the electricity got shut off like in the case of Woody and fam. This was a world where every kid had their own room, which easily tricked simpletons like me into thinking that the opposite meant dysfunction.

The Carmichaels | Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Crooklyn wasn't that neat package. But through Troy's eyes, viewers were at least able to observe a family function within an environment that statistics may state, breeds dysfunction. But at the same time, Crooklyn didn't shy away from the ugliness and hardships of life, which can of course be a harder burden on the lower class as shown in its later half involving a loss.

Hard and ugly aside; when Troy hangs off of a railing next to a stoop of neighbours arguing; her natural afro hair all set, I saw the end result of her laughs and her loss, and still, she was smiling that smile, looking more beautiful than in any other moment in the film.

In Robert Ebert's review years later, when he wrote, "Thinking about the difference between its world and ours can make you angry, and I think that was one of Lee's purposes." I had to agree. Lee was able to capture a relatable time before low class was automatically, and irresponsibly associated with drugs, guns and death. This was my world, and if anything, I want to believe that Lee's purpose had a double meaning in showing me just how good of a life many of us had it in all that raw, "low class" form. Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.