Which Way to the Promised Land?: Spike Lee's Clockers and the Legacy of the African American City

By Massood, Paula J. | African American Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Which Way to the Promised Land?: Spike Lee's Clockers and the Legacy of the African American City


Massood, Paula J., African American Review


Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences.... Every citizen has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings. (Lynch 1)

In the closing scene of Spike Lee's Clockers (1995), Strike Dunham--the film's young, ulcer-prone protagonist--escapes from the life-threatening dangers of urban life. In the film's final frames we witness both an emigration and a migration as Strike concurrently leaves behind his past and heads toward a more promising future. This in and of itself is neither new nor innovative. We are familiar with Hollywood's happy endings, provided so that audiences can walk out of the theater with a feeling of satisfaction, having experienced narrative closure. The way the scene is shot adds to its redemptive qualities: Infused with a golden light, Strike heads into the sunset before the screen fades to black.

Even before Clockers' release, Lee announced his intentions for the film. In a variety of press releases and published interviews, he stated that he wanted Clockers to be more than just another hood film--what he referred to as the "black gangster, hip-hop shoot-'em-up ... drug genre" (qtd. in Schaefer 47). One of Lee's primary concerns was to differentiate Clockers from "hood" films such as John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991) and the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society (1993). As Lee stated after the film's release, "It was always our intention that if we succeeded with this film, that this might be the final nail in the coffin and African-American filmmakers would try telling new stories" (qtd. in Bernstein 202). While Clockers is wholly conscious of and reliant upon the hood films immediately preceding it, the film occupies a different position from those with which it is most closely aligned. For instance, its self-conscious appropriation and revision of many of the conventions of the hood film proble matize a clear-cut alignment of it with earlier examples of the genre. Indeed, its use of hood conventions is too consciously self-referential, a fact apparent in the film's narrative, style, and shifting character identification. Menace II Society is also a self-referential text, especially in its conscious appropriation of many of the narrative elements of Boyz N the Hood, yet whereas Menace's self-consciousness accepts hood conventions while expanding upon them, Clockers deconstructs and problematizes them. It may be, in fact, just this process of revision that transforms the hood film into something else entirely.

It is not my intention to examine all of the ways in which Clockers either succeeds or fails to fulfill generic requirements. Instead, I want to start from the understanding that Clockers utilizes iconography similar to that in a number of other films set in African American urban spaces in the nineties, but I want to expand upon this observation by suggesting that Lee broadens this urban sign system in discrete ways. In fact, Lee's film fuses the hood with the traces of another time and space by linking contemporary Brooklyn to an African American past through specific changes to Richard Price's novel, on which the film is based. This essay focuses on the ways in which Clockers reconsiders and revises the hood film, in particular, and cinematic representations of the African American city as a whole. [1] In the process, I examine how the film's spatio-temporal parameters dialogue with the traces of another time and space through the motif of the train. My argument is that the presence of the train in Clocke rs inserts the tropes of migration, mobility, and settlement into the narrative in order to place history, especially African American history, back into a dialogue with contemporary African American filmmaking. The difference between Lee's film and more identifiably "historical" films like Mario Van Peebles' Posse (1993) and Bill Duke's Hoodlum (1997) is that Clockers is set in a contemporary location and uses the conventions of a contemporary genre. …

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