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SPIKED NOSTALGIA

In Spike Lee's sunny re-creation of Bedford-Stuyvesant circa 1974, laughing kids jump rope and play stoopball on spotless sidewalks. There's always a parking place for the family car in front of the tidy brownstone. The neighbors may beef at each other about a little misplaced trash, but there's not a handgun in sight, and the most serious drug problem in the 'hood is a pair of teenagers sniffing glue. Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and the Stylistics fill the unpolluted air with love songs.

Welcome to Crooklyn, Lee's idealized return to his Brooklyn childhood. This is his gentlest and kindest movie by a couple of city blocks--the tender, sweetly comic story about a nice, solid black family struggling to make it, and a little girl's coming-of-age. Spike replaces the social sting of Do the Right Thing and the political savvy of Malcolm X with some other qualities here--devotion to kin, humor and warm remembrance. That doesn't mean he's collapsed into a puddle of sentiment. It does show he's grown into a filmmaker capable of examining his origins and judging them fairly.

The current Seventies nostalgia craze probably won't hurt Crooklyn a bit at the box office, but the sparkling cast will do even more to win over skeptics expecting tough urban realism. Veteran actors Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo play the steadfast mother and struggling father of Lee's fictional Carmichael family with grace and consummate skill--just what you'd expect. But it's the five impish, competing, funny Carmichael kids who steal the show. These fresh faces all came out of auditions Lee conducted in New York City schools, and he's chosen well.

Most child actors give you the same quirky moves each time out. The four boys here, TseMach Washington (Joseph), Sharif Rashid (Wendell), Chris Knowings (Nate) and Carlton Williams (Clinton), light up the screen with far more natural energy and mischief. Eight-year-old Zelda Harris gets to do even more as the plucky young heroine Troy Carmichael. A pretty kid with darting eyes, she tugs away at the heartstrings whether she's grappling with an older brother, getting caught shoplifting at the corner store or struggling to replace her sick mother in the family scheme of things. Harris is not quite a beginner--she's appeared on Sesame Street and I'll Fly Away--but she has no standard bag of tricks. Fighting or feeling, she's a continual surprise.

The film turns on a minimum of plot. Set mostly on one city block, it shows us, through the eyes of a child, the Carmichaels at the dinner table, on the front stoop, in front of the TV set and fighting for the bathroom. A kid's Buffalo-head nickels mysteriously vanish. The lights get turned out because the family can't pay Con Edison. The mother hectors her kids because she loves them so much. The father delights them with ice cream even though he can't find work playing his beloved jazz. The Carmichaels squabble, to be sure, but they're united by love and hardship--especially when faced with a crisis.

Lest you get the idea that the hip, abrasive Lee has turned into some kind of second-generation Bill Cosby, rest assured that he hasn't completely left his edge at home. He collaborated with siblings Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee on the screenplay for Crooklyn, but the warm, fuzzy memories and what looks like a rather pretty picture of Bed-Stuy don't add up to pure nostalgia. Verging now on middle age, Lee has been speaking out recently against gangsta rap, the radical edges of hip-hop culture and street violence, and he's been speaking up for "good taste." So this tale of a Seventies family hanging tough through poverty and sickness is not just an album full of golden memories but a call for urban civility in a time when it has just about vanished from everyone's neighborhood. If there's a hint of social backlash here, so be it.

Lee misses in a couple of places. There's some confusion about point of view: Are we seeing Brooklyn wholly through little Troy's innocent eyes, or is Lee romanticizing his past? And the girl's disorienting summer visit with prosperous, uptight relatives (Frances Foster, Norman Matlock and little Patriece Nelson) in a neat Baltimore suburb might have been funnier if the director hadn't squeezed and elongated the whole sequence through an anamorphic lens. You know what he's getting at (Troy's discomfort), but the effect seems crude and amateurish.

Little matter. Crooklyn is Spike Lee's most appealing movie yet, though not his flintiest. It's "family entertainment" in the best sense--a funny, touching, bittersweet slice of life that exalts the highest concepts of family. There's something else, too. You can't help leaving the theater wondering what's gone sour over the past twenty years--how Uzis and crack and skinheads and the failure of tolerance have cast urban Americans out of the happy, sunlit street joys of their youths.

 
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