Spike is angry!”
If those words sound familiar, it’s little wonder. As anyone who has followed his directing career must realize by now, Spike Lee angers easily. He got angry when his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, drew an X rating. He got angry when some critics said Do the Right Thing might inspire race riots. He got angry when he learned that a white man was planning to direct Malcolm X. And on this sunny Saturday in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the famously provocative, prickly director is angry again: The 9-year-old star of his new movie, Crooklyn, has fallen off her bike.
While shooting a music video for Crooklyn-a cover of the Stylistics’ ”People Make the World Go Round” by soulful tenor Marc Dorsey-Zelda Harris, riding tandem with costar Carlton Williams, 15, caught her red sneaker in the bike’s spokes, and splat! ”Dag,” grumbles Lee. ”Cut!” He jumps off the film truck, yells for tissues, crouches over Zelda, asks ”Whose blood is this?” and calls for an ambulance.
As Lee heads to the hospital with his wailing ingenue, the kids left at the park breathlessly recount the drama. ”You should see Spike,” says Chris Knowings, a lanky 14-year-old who is another of Crooklyn‘s newcomer stars. ”Spike is angry!”
”Christopher, Spike is just concerned that Zelda is all right,” interrupts Renee Knowings, his mother. ”No,” insists Chris. ”He’s really angry!”
Wearing a welt on her forehead, Harris later worries that Lee blames her for ruining the take. ”There was something on his face,” she says, fighting tears. ”It was like, ‘Why did this have to happen to her? Why did this have to happen to me?”’ But, as is often the case, Lee’s anger was more complex than it seemed. After he consoled her at the hospital and called her several times at home, the injured actress changed her mind: ”He wasn’t exactly mad. He was concerned.”
”Kids are murder,” Lee, 37, says several days later at Manhattan’s TriBeCa Film Center as he talks about Crooklyn and his multifarious roles as the movie’s director, disciplinarian, and backup paramedic. The film, opening nationally May 13, has a cast of rambunctious kids, five of them in major roles, a surprise from a filmmaker famous for his edgy, in-your-face, and undeniably grown-up movies. Set in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the early ’70s, Crooklyn, unlike his previous films, is a tender family comedy-drama about everyday life. It is uncontroversial, nonconfrontational, and, as Lee says, ”overtly nonpolitical.”
It is also semiautobiographical. Like the films’ Carmichael clan, the Lee children, four boys and a girl, grew up safe and essentially happy in Brooklyn with a demanding, attentive schoolteacher for a mom and a well-meaning but irresponsible jazz musician for a dad. But suggest that Lee is telling his own story and the director tenses up: ”This is a fictitious family, very, very loosely based on my recollections growing up.”
Those who know the Lees say Spike has a painful, personal reason for insisting this: He and his siblings, who all still live in Brooklyn, are apparently concerned about their father’s reaction to Crooklyn. Bill Lee scored most of his son’s movies until Malcolm X but has fallen from Spike’s graces, an estrangement that Bill’s 1991 arrest for heroin possession didn’t help. Now the two talk ”depending on the weather,” Lee says. Turning away in his desk chair, he adds firmly, ”The character Woody is not my father. So he would have no concern about the movie.”
Despite his discomfort at discussing Crooklyn‘s most personal elements, Lee agrees to call his grandmother to get her take on the film. Zimmie Shelton, 87, who lives in Atlanta, lost her only child, Spike’s mother, to liver cancer in 1976. As Lee hands over the phone and exits the small office, Shelton speaks freely. ”I’m kind of sad. It brings back memories, and it’s almost too touching for me,” she says, referring to the director as ”Spikey.” ”I read the script and am thinking it may be best to see the movie alone. If I wish to weep more, I can give in to my feelings.”
Indeed, as Lee discusses the film and his deep dissatisfaction with how inner-city childhoods are portrayed in black cinema today, it becomes clear that he mined his own past to show another side of black life. ”I never had to worry about getting into fights, or think, ‘Am I going to get hit by that errant bullet?”’ Lee, the eldest of five, says of his upbringing in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene and Cobble Hill. ”We were able to have childhoods.” That innocence is evident in almost every scene of Crooklyn; the Carmichael kids spend their summer watching TV, eating junk food, and making mostly benign mischief. Even the film’s touch of evil-a slothful, bell-bottomed, Afro-topped glue sniffer named Snuffy, played comically by Lee in his tiniest and least consequential role yet-is relatively unthreatening.