The opening credits of Clockers has a series of still photographs of black men killed in – guessing by the nature of the film’s subject – drug-related violence played over a soft, melancholic Stevie Wonder song. It’s quite a jarring combination. For the detectives investigating these murders, this is a usual sight; nothing new. The film revolves around one such murder and its investigation, all done in Spike Lee’s characteristic style.
It’s another one of Lee’s blistering statements against violence. Set in a Brooklyn housing project, the film marked the debut of Mekhi Phifer, who plays a young drug dealer called Strike, and it’s around him that everything revolves. He works for a charismatic and hardened drug lord called Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who has his own terrible past. When Rodney asks Strike to take care of one of his competition, he chickens out and gets his elder brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) involved, making things incredibly complicated.
Rodney and his unstable, HIV-infected right-hand man Errol are not happy with how things have played out. A pair of hard-nosed detectives – played by Harvey Keitel and John Turturro – go around in circles trying to figure out whether it was really Victor or Strike who really did it. Here Keitel gives one of his career-best performances. And Strikes exudes so much guilt that you can’t blame them for thinking that way. Before Lee amps the intensity in the second half, we get a sense of the housing project that Strike lives in, where you are introduced to several other dealers just like him.
Lee films their secret exchanges as if they are on candid camera. It’s a dark, gritty and ugly neighborhood where mothers constantly worry about how their young sons are going to turn out, and the presence of these ‘clockers’ (a slang for these “round the clock” dealers) in the same playground where these children play, is not making things any easier for them. Keith David has a strong supporting role as Andre, a man who has assumed the role of a sort of neighborhood guardian who wants to ensure that no more kids are corrupted by these misguided and delusional youths. He is one of the strongest characters in the film.
He has his eye particularly on Strike, warning the teenager on several occasions to stay away from one of the neighborhood kids, a 12-year old boy called Tyrone who looks up to Strike. Some striking parallels are made between Rodney’s past and Strike’s own, as well as the fatherly bond between Strike and Tyrone, which is in complete contrast to Rodney’s and Strike’s. This is Lee’s most emotionally engaging film since Do the Right Thing, but most critics seem to be in disagreement about that. I loved the properly fleshed out characters, crackling dialogues, high-octane performances and overall energy of the film.