Sorrowful black death is not a hot ticket: bell hooks on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

In most Hollywood films, black death is violent. In this piece from our August 1994 issue, the American critic, author and activist bell hooks considered Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, which has a black female child star and the death of a mother at its heart, and asks if it challenges that habit.

Updated: 16 December 2021

By bell hooks

Crooklyn (1994)
Sight and Sound

Hollywood is not into plain old sorrowful death. The death that captures the public imagination in movies, the death that sells, is passionate, sexualised, glamorised and violent.

Films like One False Move, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Menace II Society, A Perfect World bring us the sensational heat of relentless dying. It’s fierce – intense – and there is no time to mourn. Dying that makes audiences contemplative, sad, mindful of the transitory nature of human life has little appeal. When portrayed in the contemporary Hollywood film, such deaths are swift, romanticised by soft lighting and elegiac soundtracks. The sights and sounds of death do not linger long enough to disturb the senses, to remind us in any way that sorrow for the dying may be sustained and unrelenting.

When Hollywood films depict sorrowful death, audiences come prepared to cry. Films like Philadelphia advertise the pathos so that even before tickets are brought and seats are taken, everyone knows that tears are in order, but that the crying time will not last long.

The racial politics of Hollywood is such that there can be no serious representations of death and dying when the characters are African-Americans. Sorrowful black death is not a hot ticket. In the financially successful film The Bodyguard, the sister of Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is accidentally assassinated by the killer she has hired. There is no grief, no remembrance.

This feature originnaly appeared in our August 1994 issue

In most Hollywood movies, black death is violent. It is often trivialised and mocked – as in that viciously homophobic moment in Menace II Society when a young black male crack addict holding a fast-food hamburger while seeking drugs tells the powerful drug dealer, “I’ll suck your dick”, only to be blown away for daring to suggest that the hard gangsta mack would be at all interested. Pleased with the killing, he laughingly offers the hamburger to onlookers, a gesture that defines the value of black life. It’s worth nothing. It’s dead meat.

Even black children cannot be spared Hollywood’s cruelty. Audiences watching the film Paris Trout witness the prolonged, brutal slaughter of a gifted southern black girl by a powerful, sadistic, racist white man. The black males who are her relatives are depicted as utterly indifferent. Too cowardly to save or avenge her life, for a few coins they willingly show the lawyer who will defend her killer the blood stains left by her dragging body, the bullet holes in the walls. Her life is worth nothing.

Audiences are so accustomed to representations of the brutal death of black folks in Hollywood films that no one is outraged when our bodies are violently slaughtered. I could find no Hollywood movie where a white child is the object of a prolonged, brutal murder by a powerful white male – no image comparable to that of Paris Trout. Yet no group in the United States publicly protests against this image – even though the film is shown regularly on Home Box Office, reaching an audience far wider than the moviegoing public, finding its way into the intimate spaces of home life and the private world of family values.

Apparently the graphic representation of the murder of a little black girl does not shock, does not engender grief or protest. There is collective cultural agreement that black death is inevitable, meaningless, not worth much. That there is nothing to mourn.

Spike Lee behind the scenes on Crooklyn (1994)

This is the culture Spike Lee confronts with his new film Crooklyn. On the surface, the movie appears to represent issues of death and dying in black life as though our survival matters, as though our living bodies count, yet in the end the usual Hollywood message about black death is reaffirmed. Lee has made a film that is both provocative and controversial.

To introduce it to consumers who do not take black life seriously, advertisements give little indication of its content. Huge billboards tell consumers “The Smart Choice is Spike Lee’s hilarious Crooklyn”, suggesting that the film is a comedy. The seriousness of the subject matter must be downplayed, denied.

Expecting to see a comedy, moviegoers I talked to were not so much disappointed as puzzled by the fact that the comedic elements were overshadowed by the serious representation of a family in crisis that culminates with the mother’s death. When the movie ended, the folks standing around the theatre in Greenwich Village were mostly saying: “It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t like his other films.”

But Crooklyn differs from Lee’s previous work primarily because the major protagonist is a ten-year-old-girl, Troy (Zelda Harris). Positively radical in this regard – rarely do we see Hollywood films with black female stars, not to mention child stars – Crooklyn invites audiences to look at black experience through Troy’s eyes, to enter the spaces of her emotional universe, the intimate world of family and friends that grounds her being and gives her life meaning.

Zelda Harris as Troy

Lee’s magic as a filmmaker has been best expressed by his construction of an aesthetic space wherein decolonised images (familiar representations of blackness that oppose racist stereotypes) are lovingly presented. But this radical intervention is most often framed by a conventional narrative and structure of representations that reinscribes stereotypical norms.

The laughing darky family portrait that advertises Crooklyn is just one example. Moviegoers want to see this image rather than those that challenge it. This contradictory stance tends to undermine Lee’s ability to subvert dominant representations of blackness. His radical images are usually overshadowed by stock characterisations and can be easily overlooked, particularly by audiences who are more accustomed to stereotypes. Even progressive, aware viewers may be so fascinated by the funky, funny ‘otherness’ of typical Spike Lee black images that they refuse to ‘see’ representations that challenge conventional ways of looking at blackness.

J. Hoberman’s review of Crooklyn in Village Voice is a perfect example of the way our standpoint can determine how we see what we see. Hoberman did not see a film that highlights issues of death and dying – to his mind’s eye, “the grittier specifics of the Lee family drama” are exemplified by arguments at family dinners and witty disagreements over television programmes. Indeed, he saw the movie as having “no particular plot”; never mentioning the mother’s death, he did not see the film as constructing a context in which this event, more than any other, leads to a ten-year-old black girl’s coming of age.

Hoberman is more engaged with the comedic aspects of the film, especially those that centre on the eldest child in this family of four boys and one girl, Clinton (Carlton Williams), the character who most resembles Lee himself. Not unlike other moviegoers I talked to, Hoberman seems more fascinated with the antics of Spike Lee, controversial filmmaker, than with the content of his film. By deflecting attention away from Crooklyn and on to Lee, Hoberman and others do not have to interrogate the film on its own terms. To do that would require looking at Crooklyn’s treatment of death and dying, and the way this aspect of the film fails to excite and challenge our imagination.

Crooklyn is most compelling in those moments when it offers fictive representations of black subjectivity rarely seen in mainstream cinema, depictions that counter both racist stereotypes and facile notions of positive images. The property-owning, artistic, progressive 70s black family portrayed is one that dares to be different. The Carmichaels in no way represent the conventional black bourgeoisie: they are not obsessed with being upwardly mobile, with the material trappings of success. Counter-cultural – a mixture of the nationalist movement for racial uplift and a bohemian artistic subculture – they represent an alternative to the bourgeois norm.

The father Woody (Delroy Lindo) is an aspiring jazz musician and composer, the mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) a non-traditional schoolteacher. Their five children are all encouraged by progressive, hands-off parenting to be individuals with their own interests, passions and obsessions. These are not your average kids: they take a democratic vote to see which television show will be watched and are made to participate equally in household chores. Though black nationalist thinking shapes the family politics, the world they live in is multicultural and multi-ethnic – Italians, Latinos, gays and straights, young and old, the haves and have-nots are all part of the mix.

This is the world of cultural hybridity and border crossing extolled by progressive contemporary critics. And much of the film depicts that world ‘as is’, not framed by the will to present images that are artificially positive or unduly negative. Beginning in the style of a fictive documentary (enhanced initially by the cinematography of Arthur Jafa), the film’s opening scene offers a panorama of visual images of black community that disrupts prevailing one-dimensional portrayals of urban black life. Highlighting scenes of play and pleasure, the beauty of black bodies, the faces of children and old men, we see joy in living as opposed to the usual depictions of racial dehumanisation and deprivation. These representations signal heightened creativity, an unbridled imagination that creates splendour in a world of lack, that makes elegance and grace so common a part of the everyday as to render them regular expressions of natural communion with the universe.

Spike Lee on the location of Crooklyn (1994)

This opening sequence acts like a phototext, calling us to be resisting readers able to embrace a vision of blackness that challenges the norm. Lee engages a politics of representation which cultural critic Saidiya Hartman describes in ‘Roots and Romance’, an essay on black photography, as “a critical labor of reconstruction”. She explains: “It is a resolutely counterhegemonic labor that has as its aim the establishment of other standards of aesthetic value and visual possibility. The intention of the work is corrective representation.”

At rare moments through the film this strategy is realised. And it is marvellous to follow where the camera leads – to catch sight of such empowering images. Seduced by this initial moment of radical intervention – by the way it shifts paradigms and requires new ways of seeing – the enthralled viewer can sit in a daze of delight through the rest of the movie, failing to experience how the cinematic direction and narrative structure counteract the initial subversive representations.

A distinction must be made between oppositional representations and romantically glorifying images of blackness which white supremacist thinking as it informs movie-making may have rendered invisible. Visibility does not mean that images are inherently radical or progressive. Hartman urges cultural critics to interrogate this distinction, to ask necessary questions: “Simply put, how are redemptive narratives of blackness shaped and informed by romantic racialism, the pastoral and sentimental representation of black life? How is the discourse of black cultural authenticity and Afrocentrism shaped and informed by this construction of Africanism and do they too maintain and normalise white cultural hegemony?”

Crooklyn (1994)

Crooklyn is offered as a redemptive narrative. The counterhegemonic images we see at the beginning serve to mask all that is ‘wrong’ with this picture. From the moment we encounter the Carmichaels at their dinner table, we are offered a non-critical representation of their family life. Shot like docu-drama, these early scenes appear innocent and neutral; the ethnographic day-in-a-life style of presentation demands that the viewer see nothing wrong with this picture. The camera aggressively normalises. These family scenes are presented unproblematically and so appear to be positive representations, fulfilling Lee’s quest to bring to the big screen ‘authentic’ black aesthetic subjects.

Since Spike Lee’s cinematic genius is best revealed during those moments when he documents familiar aspects of a rich black cultural legacy wherein collective internal codes and references that may or may not be known to outsiders converge, it is easy to overlook the fact that these counterhegemonic representations are constantly countered in his work by stock stereotypical images. When these are coupled with Lee’s use of ‘animal house’ type humour appropriated from mainstream white culture, a carnivalesque atmosphere emerges that seems directed towards mainstream, largely white, viewers.

This cultural borrowing, which gives the movie crossover appeal, is most evident in the scenes where Troy travels south to stay with relatives in a Virginia suburb. Though the cinematography didactically demands that the audience detach from a notion of the ‘real’ and engage the ‘ridiculous and absurd’, these scenes appear stupid, especially the mysterious, not really comical, death of the pet dog Troy’s aunt dotes on.

Lee works overtime to create a comedic atmosphere to contrast with the seriousness of the Carmichael household, but it does not work; the switch to an anamorphic lens confuses (no doubt that is why signs were placed at ticket booths telling viewers that this change did not indicate a problem with the projector). In these scenes Lee mockingly caricatures the southern black middle class (who appear more like northerners in drag doing the classic Hollywood comedic rendition of southern life). Lee gives it to us in black face.

Crooklyn (1994)

It is predictable and you can’t wait to return home to the Carmichael family. However, while he strategically constructs images to normalise the dysfunctions of the Carmichael family, he insists on making this family pathological. This attempt at counterhegemonic representation fails.

Anyone who sees the Carmichael family without the rose-coloured glasses the film offers will realise that they are seriously dysfunctional. The recurrent eating disorders (one of the children is coercively forced by verbal harassment to eat to the point where on one occasion he vomits in his plate); an excessive addiction to sugar (dad’s pouring half a bag of the white stuff into a pitcher of lemonade, his cake and ice-cream forays, his candy-buying all hint that he may be addicted to more than sugar, though he is not overtly shown to be a drug-user); the lack of economic stability, signified by the absence of money for food choice, shutting off the electricity, as well as dad’s mismanagement of funds, are all indications that there are serious problems.

By normalising the family image, Lee refuses to engage with the issue of psychological abuse; all interactions are made to appear natural, ordinary, comedic, not tragic. The autobiographical roots of Crooklyn may account for Lee’s inability to take any stance other than that of ‘objective’ reporter; working with a screenplay written collaboratively with his sister Joie and brother Cinque, he may have felt the need to distance himself from the material. Certainly emotional. detachment characterises the interaction between family members in the film.

Joie Lee stated that to write the screenplay she “drew from the few memories I have of my mother”, who died of cancer when she was 14. Yet the children in Crooklyn are much younger than this and are clearly deeply ambivalent about their mother. Portrayed as a modern-day Sapphire with direct lineage to the Amos n’ Andy character, Carolyn responds to economic crisis by constantly nagging and erupting into irrational states of anger and outrage that lead her to be mean and at times abusive. Even though the problems the family faces are caused by Woody’s unemployment, he is depicted compassionately – an aspiring artist who just wants be left alone to compose music, always laid­back and calm.

Sexist/racist stereotypes of gender identity in black experience are evident in the construction of these two characters. Although Carolyn is glamorous, beautiful in her Afrocentric style, she is portrayed as a bitch goddess. Her physical allure seduces, even as her unpredictable rage alienates. In keeping with sexist stereotypes of the emasculating black matriarch, Carolyn usurps her husband’s authority by insisting that as the primary breadwinner she has the right to dominate, shaming Woody in front of the children.

These aspects encourage us to see her unsympathetically and to empathise with him. His irresponsibility and misuse of resources is given legitimacy by the suggestion that his is an artistic, non-patriarchal mindset; he cannot be held accountable. Since Carolyn’s rage is often over-reactive, it is easy to forget that she has concrete reasons to be angry. Portrayed as vengeful, anti-pleasure, dangerous and threatening, her moments of tenderness are not sustained enough to counter the negatives.

Even her sweetness is depicted as manipulative, whereas Woody’s ‘sweet’ demeanour is a mark of his artistic sensibility, one that enhances his value. As the artist, he embodies the pleasure principle, the will to transgress. His mild-mannered response to life is infinitely more compelling than the work-hard-to-meet-your-responsibilities ethic by which Carolyn lives.

Alfre Woodard as Carolyn

Being responsible seems to make her ‘crazy’. In one scene the children are watching a basketball game when she encourages them to turn off the television to do schoolwork. They refuse to obey and she goes berserk. Woody intervenes, not to offer reinforcement, but rather to take sides·. Carolyn becomes the bad guy, who wants to curtail the children’s freedom to indulge in pleasure without responsibility. Woody responds to her rage by being physically coercive.

Domestic violence in black life is sugarcoated – portrayed as a family affair, one where there are no victims or abusers. In fact, Carolyn has been humiliated and physically assaulted. But her demand that Woody leave makes him appear the victim and the children first attend to him, pleading with him not to go. Her pain is unattended by her male children; it is Troy who assumes the traditional feminine role of caretaker.

In contrast to Carolyn, the ten-year-old Troy is concerned with traditional notions of womanhood. Her mother expresses rage at not being able to “take a piss without six people hanging off my tits”, repudiating sexist thinking about the woman’s role. Flirtatious and cute, Troy manipulates with practised charm. It is she who advises her dad to take Carolyn on a date to make up.

Troy embodies all the desirable elements of sexist-defined femininity. Indeed, it is her capacity to escape into a world of romantic fantasy that makes her and everyone else ignore her internal anguish. When she lies, steals and cheats, her acts of defiance have no consequences. As the little princess, she has privileges denied her brothers; when her mother is sick, it is only Troy who is sheltered from this painful reality and sent down south.

Crooklyn (1994)

In the home of her southern relatives, Troy meets a fair-skinned cousin who is portrayed as conventionally feminine in her concerns, though she is eager to bond with her guest. By contrast Troy assumes a ‘bitchified role’. She is hostile, suspicious, until charmed. Representing the light-skinned female as ‘good’ and Troy as ‘bad’, Crooklyn, like all Lee’s films, perpetuates stereotypes of darker-skinned females as evil.

While her cousin is loving, Troy is narcissistic and indifferent. When she decides to return home, it is her cousin who runs alongside the car that carries Troy away, waving tenderly, while Troy appears unconcerned. This encounter prepares us for her transformation from princess to mini-matriarch.

Taken to the hospital to see her mother, Troy is given instructions as to how she must assume the caretaker role. Contemporary feminist thinkers are calling attention to girlhood as a time when females have access to greater power than that offered us in womanhood. No one in the film is concerned about the loss of Troy’s girlhood, though her brothers remain free to maintain their spirit of play. Clinton, the eldest boy, does not have to relinquish his passion for sports to become responsible; he can still be a child. But becoming a mini-matriarch because her mother is sick and dying requires of Troy that she relinquish all concern with pleasure and play, that she repress desire.

Sexist/racist thinking about black female identity leads to cultural acceptance of the exploitation and denigration of black girlhood. Commenting on the way black girls are often forced to assume adult roles in In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem, Julia Boyd asserts: “Without fully understanding the adult tasks we were expected to perform, we filled shoes that were much too big for our small feet. Again, we did not have a choice and we weren’t allowed to experience the full developmental process of girlhood.”

Lee romanticises this violation by making it appear a ‘natural’ progression for Troy rather than sexist gender politics coercively imposing a matriarchal role via a process of socialisation.

Crooklyn (1994)

Carolyn did not make gender distinctions about household chores when she was well, and the movie fails to indicate why she now has an unconvincing shift in attitude. As if to highlight patriarchal thinking that females are interchangeable, undifferentiated, the film in no way suggests that there is anything wrong with a ten-year-old girl assuming an adult role. Indeed, this is affirmed, and the mother’s dying is upstaged by the passing of the torch to Troy. The seriousness of her illness is announced to the children by their father, who commands them to turn away from their gleeful watching of Soul Train to hear the news (even in her absence, the mother/matriarch spoils their pleasure).

Throughout Crooklyn Lee shows the importance of television in shaping the children’s identities, their sense of self. While the boys panic emotionally when they hear the news, bursting into tears, Troy’s feelings are hidden by a mask of indifference. That the children obey their father in their mother’s absence (not complaining when he tells them to turn off the television) suggests that he is better able to assume an authoritative parental role when she is no longer present. Woody’s transformation into a responsible adult reinscribes the sexist/racist thinking that the presence of a ‘strong’ black female emasculates the male.

Carolyn’s death is treated in a matter-of-fact manner; we learn about it as the children casually discuss the funeral. We never see the family grieve. Troy, who is emotionally numb, only confronts the reality of this death when she is jolted from sleep by what she imagines is her mother’s raging voice. Bonding with her father in the kitchen, her suppressed grief does not unleash tears; instead she vomits. This ritual cathartic cleansing is the rite of passage that signals her movement away from girlhood.

Crooklyn (1994)

Taking her mother’s place, Troy is no longer adventurous. She no longer roams the streets, discovering, but is bound to the house, to domestic life. While the male children and grown-up dad continue to lead autonomous lives, to express their creativity and will to explore, Troy is confined, her creativity stifled. Since she is always and only a mother substitute, her power is more symbolic than real. We see her tending to the needs of her brothers, being the ‘little woman’. Gone is the vulnerable, emotionally open girl who expressed a range of feelings; in her place is a hard impenetrable mask.

Just as no one mourns the mother’s death, no one mourns the erasure of Troy’s adolescence. In their book Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, Myra and David Sadker document the pervasiveness of a “curricular sexism” that turns girls into “spectators instead of players”. Troy becomes a spectator, standing behind the gate looking out at life, a stern expression on her face.

Though dead, Carolyn reappears to reassure and affirm her daughter. This reappearance is yet another rejection of loss. The controlling, dominating mother remains present even when dead, visible only to her girl child, now the guardian of patriarchy who gives approval to Troy’s subjugation. Powerful black mothers, who work outside the home, the film suggests, ‘fail’ their families. Their punishment is death.

When she is dying Carolyn gives lessons in sexism to her daughter in a way that runs counter to the values she has expressed throughout the film (she does, however, encourage her daughter to think about a work future, if only because it is her own career that ensured the family’s economic survival).

The Sadkers conclude their introductory chapter, which exposes the way sexist socialisation robs girls of their potential, with a section called ‘Silent Losses’ that ends with the declaration: “If the cure for cancer is forming in the mind of one of our daughters, it is less likely to become a reality than if it is forming in the mind of one of our sons.”

Whereas Crooklyn attempts to counter racist assumptions about black identity, it upholds sexist and misogynist thinking about gender roles. Order is restored in the Carmichael house when the dominating mother-figure dies. The emergence of patriarchy is celebrated, marked by the subjugating of Troy, and all the household’s problems ‘magically’ disappear. Life not only goes on without the matriarch, but is more harmonious.

Crooklyn constructs a redemptive fictive narrative for black life where the subjugation of the black female body is celebrated as a rite of passage which is restorative, which ensures family survival. Whether it is the grown woman’s body erased by death or the little girl’s body erased by violent interruption of her girlhood, the sexist politics embedded in this movie has often gone unnoticed by viewers whose attention is riveted by the exploits of the male characters.

In failing to identify with the female characters or to bring any critical perspective to these representations, audiences tacitly condone the patriarchal devaluation and erasure of rebellious black female subjectivity the film depicts. Oppositional representations of blackness deflect attention away from the sexist politics that surfaces’ when race and gender converge. The naturalistic style of Crooklyn gives the sense of life-as-is rather than life as fictive construction.

Crooklyn (1994)

Lee is indeed fictively re-imagining the 70s in this film and not merely providing a nostalgic portrait of the way things were. In his ahistorical narrative there is no meaningful convergence of black liberation and feminist politics, whereas in reality black women active in nationalist black power groups were challenging sexism and insisting on a feminist agenda. In Crooklyn Lee’s aggressively masculinist vision is diffused by excessive sentimentality and by the use of Troy as the central embodiment of his message.

Writing about the dangers that arise when excessive emotionality is used as a cover-up for a different agenda, James Baldwin reminds us that: “Sentimentality is the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion. It is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.” Such emotional dishonesty emerges full force in Crooklyn. The focus on Troy’s coming of age and her mother’s death is a non-threatening cover for the more insidious anti-woman, anti-feminist vision of black family life that is the film’s dominant theme.

It is used to mask the repressive patriarchal valorisation of black family life, in which the reinscription of sexist idealised femininity symbolically rescues the family from dissolution. Death and dying are merely a subtext in Crooklyn, a diversionary ploy that creates a passive emotional backdrop on to which Lee imposes a vision of the black family that is conservative and in no way opposed to the beliefs of white mainstream culture. The aspects of the film that are rooted in Lee’s own life-story are the most interesting; it is when he exploits those memories to create a counter-worldview that will advance patriarchal thinking that the narrative loses its appeal.

Spike Lee directing Crooklyn (1994)

Testifying that writing this script was cathartic, that it enabled her to confront the past, Joie Lee declares: “The emotional things that happen to you as a child, they’re timeless, they stay with you until you deal with them. I definitely cleaned up some areas in my life that I hadn’t dealt with before – like death.”

But the film Spike Lee has made does not confront death. In Crooklyn, death and dying are realities males escape from. There is no redemptive healing of a gendered split between mind and body; instead, Crooklyn echoes the patriarchal vision celebrated in Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, where the hope is that “unrepressed man” “would be rid of the nightmares… haunting civilization” and that “freedom from those fantasies would also mean freedom from that disorder in the human body.”

The messiness of death is women’s work in Crooklyn. Expressing creativity, engaging pleasure and play is the way men escape from the reality of death and dying. In the space of imaginative fantasy, Lee can resurrect the dead female mothering body and create a world where there is never any need to confront the limitations of the flesh and therefore no place for loss. In such a world there is no need for grief, since death has no meaning.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 20 June 2020

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