Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, John Turturro
David Lee/40 Acres & A Mule/Kobal/Shutterstock

Second Glance: Spike Lee’s Powerful, Underrated Crime Drama ‘Clockers’


Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in commemoration of Spike Lee’s 30 years of filmmaking (his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, was released on August 8, 1986), we spotlight perhaps his most underrated picture, the 1995 adaptation of Richard Price’s Clockers.

They called them “hood movies”: the hot streak of gang- and drug-related films that began as just a part of the 1991’s “Black New Wave” with New Jack City, Boyz n the Hood, and Straight Out of Brooklyn, but came to overtake black cinema in the passing years, via Juice and South Central in 1992, Menace II Society in 1993, and Above the Rim and Fresh in 1994. Noticeably absent from the subgenre was Spike Lee, whose early works – both critical and financial successes – were a major argument for the sudden “bankability” of films by and about African-Americans, but who spent those years making a film about the black upper-to-middle class (Jungle Fever), a period drama about a black family (Crooklyn), and a sweeping epic about a black icon (Malcolm X). Late in the cycle, he noted in his biography That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It, “the stuff coming out was horrible.” He wasn’t interested in making one – until Martin Scorsese called.

Scorsese had been developing an adaptation of Clockers, the critically acclaimed doorstop novel of a tough cop and the young, low-level dealer he thinks committed a murder. The book was by Richard Price, who had penned the script for Scorsese’s The Color of Money, as well as Mad Dog and Glory and Night and the City, two Scorsese-produced vehicles for his frequent leading man Robert De Niro. Universal ponied up nearly $2 million for the rights, with the understanding that Scorsese would direct (as part of the six-year deal he’d made with the studio, prior to their release of his 1991 film Cape Fear), with De Niro in the leading role of Detective Rocco Klein. But then his Goodfellas co-writer Nicholas Pileggi offered up his new manuscript Casino, and De Niro and Scorsese decided to focus their energies on that film instead. But he told the studio he would stay on as a producer, and suggested Lee – whose work he’d admired since Lee was a grad student at NYU – take over as director.

Lee agreed, once he figured out an approach that would separate his film from those with similar subject matter. “It was our intention to be the final nail in the coffin,” he said at the time. “I loved Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, but those other films, I don’t know. The genre is at its end now.” That sense of definitiveness – and of debunking the glamorization that tended to seep into those films – is established right away in Lee’s Clockers, in which the opening credits are illustrated by brutal crime scene photos that introduce a sobering, melancholy tone, and a dose of harsh reality. That grimness is further reflected by the picture’s distinctive visual style; Lee’s cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed (making, incredibly, his feature debut, the first of four films he’d shoot for Spike) wanted to shoot the bulk of the film on Kodak 5239, a high-speed Ektachrome color-reversal stock that’d primarily been used for TV news in the pre-videotape days. It was a risky move – this is not exactly the most stable or reliable film stock – but it works beautifully, giving the film a dirt-on-the-ground grittiness that recalls The French Connection (one of Sayeed’s reference points).

Lee’s other key addition was a shift was in focus. The book gave roughly equal time to Det. Klein and “Strike,” the “clocker” who might’ve committed a murder his brother has confessed to. Price’s adaptation focused more on Klein – understandable, as it was being written for De Niro – but Lee’s pass moved the lens to Strike, because the Klein-ccentric take “would have been just another cop story to me.” He discovered his Strike at a giant open call: Mekhi Phifer, who would make his film debut. Lee wanted to cast frequent co-star John Turturro as Klein and Michael Imperioli (later to find fame as Christopher on The Sopranos) as his partner, Det. Larry Mazilli; Universal refused, knocking Turturro into the role of Mazilli, Imperioli into a smaller role as another cop, and taking Scorsese’s suggestion of casting his long-time collaborator Harvey Keitel as Rocco Klein.

Lee came to regret that decision; he and Keitel, it is said, did not get along (Keitel didn’t like Lee’s run-and-gun style, and was so uncomfortable on the Brooklyn locations that he reportedly packed a real gun while working). Turturro was disappointed as well, particularly when most of his scenes as Mazilli were cut – though he’s had his revenge this year, playing the lead in another Richard Price project, the HBO limited series The Night Of. And while that series and Clockers don’t bear many stylistic bonds (Steven Zaillian’s direction is far more quiet and contemplative than Lee’s), they have a similar ear for the streets, and especially for the shop talk of police stations; Mazilli and Klein have a squad room argument about halfway through the picture that’s the best kind of screenwriting, efficiently laying out the themes and narrative, but entirely within the framework of a compelling conflict. And in both projects, Price is wise to how that talk translates into the way suspects and witnesses are treated (particularly in the gallows humor and casual racism of the cops on the murder scene here).

Price also worked as a writer on The Wire, and though he joined that show after its first season, you can feel the influence of Clockers in the scenes of young drug-runners in the projects courts that first year. And the character of Stringer Bell owes no small debt to Rodney Little, the kingpin so masterfully brought to life by Delroy Lindo, a wise and affable sort who’s practical in matters of business, and a kindly father figure to boys who need one, but if you cross him, watch the fuck out. This was Lindo’s third straight brilliant performance for Lee, after the supporting role of West Indian Archie in Malcolm X and the flawed father (and avatar for Lee’s own pop) in Crooklyn, and it’s one of his best turns – particularly the absolutely chilling moment late in the film when Strike says the wrong thing, and Rodney turns ruthless in a snap.

That relationship is one of the film’s most important; the other is the ongoing psychological mind game between Strike and Rocco. As with The Night Of, Price shows us the run-up and immediate aftermath of the murder at his story’s center, while leaving the act itself an open question. Strike is sent by Rodney to kill an employee with sticky fingers, but his brother Victor (Isaiah Washington, very good) confesses; it doesn’t sit right with Rocco, since Victor is “one of the good ones,” a family man with no record who works two jobs to make ends meet, and Strike is a clocker. He’s not just puzzling out the crime, he takes it personally – “Where the fuck do these two ‘yo’s get the balls big enough to think they could put this past me?” he asks his partner, and when he finds out Strike has lied to him, he takes it as an insult: “Have I treated you like a hard-on out here?”

Yet he’s driven by something more; when a 12-year-old on the block murders one of Strike’s bosses, the detective patiently lays out the kid’s self-defense explanation to him (in a brilliant sequence that predicts, in visual style and storytelling tone, the tremendous ending of 25th Hour), and when Strike asks him, “What made you give a shit,” Klein deflects. But there’s clearly an answer behind that mask. Whatever issues he and Lee might’ve had, Keitel turns in one helluva performance, by turns gnarly and compassionate (even if his last scene with Strike is oddly similar to the conclusion of his 1991 film Bad Lieutenant). And Lee’s direction is sharp, vibrant, and alive, though there are hints of what would become problems in later films: relying too heavily on pushy scores and overbearing needle-drops, the occasional inclination to stop a movie cold for awkward scenes discussing Important Issues (here, Thomas Byrd’s big monologue about living with AIDS), an odd strain of cultural conservatism (he’s almost a Dole Republican in the way he seems to pin the violence of the streets on video games, rap videos, and 40-ounce commercials).

But none of that detracts from the movie’s greatness, from the depth of the characters, the urgency of its narrative, the nightmarishness of its vision. Yet reviews were oddly mixed, and audiences didn’t turn out; it only made $13 million in its entire domestic run, barely half of its budget. Perhaps audiences were as tired of these films as Lee was – you can always tell a genre’s coming to an end when it has to stop taking itself seriously, so Ice Cube’s Friday was a hit earlier that year, while the Wayans Brothers released Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, a full-on spoof of the “hood movie” tropes, the following January. Or maybe Lee’s mission, to see these stories for what they were, simply wasn’t commercial; Menace and Boyz had their downbeat moments, but neither of them opened with pictures of gunshot victims, or a scene of an angry mother berating our protagonist with a line like “You are selling your own people death.”

“All those films have a little glamour,” editor Sam Pollard says in That’s My Story. “This one doesn’t. It was the nail in the coffin. But people didn’t get it. They’re starting to get it now.”

Clockers is available for rental or purchase from Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.