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

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. Ironically, this is accomplished primarily by referencing the mode of transportation so central to the establishment of an urban black population.

A knowledge of the circumstances involved in the production of Clockers is crucial for understanding the significance of Lee's role in the final product. Price's novel focuses on the experiences of two very different characters, Strike, a small-time drug dealer, and Rocco Klein, a New Jersey homicide detective, both of whom are brought together when Rocco is assigned to investigate the murder of a local drug-dealer. The original story was optioned by Martin Scorsese, with Robert DeNiro slated to star as Rocco. Price, already well-known for other scripts based on his novels, adapted the screenplay. When Scorsese and DeNiro left the project to work on Scorsese's Casino, Lee was hired to direct, with Scorsese continuing his involvement as a co-producer. Lee, also a co-producer, rewrote the script, making a number of changes that significantly altered the film. In these alterations are located the most telling links to what I am calling the "hood chronotope," after Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the literary (narr ative) chronotope, and to the historical foundations of the cinematic urbanscape.

As defined by Bakhtin, a "chronotope" is a "unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented" (425). The chronotope functions as "materialized history," where temporal relationships are made literal by the objects, spaces, or persons with which they intersect (Bakhtin 247). Often a particular chronotope is linked to a certain genre or sub-genre, and helps to define it. This has certainly been the case with hood films from the early nineties, which have been characterized by their relationship to particular spaces (Los Angeles, New York) and particular times (contemporary). It is my assertion here that Clockers draws on elements of the hood chronotope--urban setting and contemporary time frame (aided by soundtrack, costuming, and extratextual references)--but revises them by setting up a dialogue between the hood's present and its past. We can see this in three of the most important modifications made to the original story: changes in mai n character, setting, and conclusion.

First, in reconceptualizing the narrative, Lee focuses on Strike (Mekhi Phifer), a young drug dealer, or clocker. This represents a change from both the novel and the original screenplay.

The novel alternates point of view between Strike and Rocco (Harvey Keitel), an approach which aids in the development of the psyches of both characters and provides background information for the tension informing the pair's interactions as Rocco first investigates Victor (Strike's brother), but then changes his focus to Strike. In his screenplay, Price changed the novel's original structure by shifting primary point of view to Rocco alone. The effect was to provide Rocco with a more fully developed psyche, at the expense of Strike's characterization, a change most likely influenced by DeNiro's casting. Lee's change, however, expanded audience identification with (and thus sympathy for) a character traditionally lacking psychological development in most of the films focusing on similar protagonists, with the possible exceptions of Tre in Boyz and Caine in Menace. [2] Like Caine, Strike is often an unsympathetic character. Unlike the Hughes brothers, however, Lee wanted more thoroughly to explore the trials a nd tribulations, the pressures and the motives behind Strike's choice to clock rather than starting from the presumption that such a decision is made inevitably or comes "naturally." [3] Furthermore, Lee's film more fully and sympathetically acknowledges the effects of Strike's and his crew's presence on the surrounding community: in particular, his family and his neighbors.

Lee chose to focus on the same subject matter that many hood films depict; however, Strike's characterization--as a young, black man coming of age in the inner city--is one that is more three-dimensional (at least with regard to his motives, doubts, and limitations) than the majority of related characterizations since he's provided with a well-defined psychology. This approach makes Strike more sympathetic: He's not only charismatic but he is also plagued by enough of a conscience that he's literally eaten up from the inside by ulcers over the stress of his daily activities. Also, in an interesting expansion and explication of street morality, Strike becomes even more sympathetic when he has trouble carrying out orders to murder another dealer. This shift reframes the more cold-blooded characterizations of Caine, Doughboy, or Bishop from Juice (Ernest Dickerson, 1992), who elicit no remorse over similar murderous acts.

The fact that Strike is not a conventional drug dealer is further emphasized by the scenes in which he interacts with authority figures. Unlike earlier cinematic renderings of gangsta characters and more like Rusty Cundieff's satirical Fear of a Black Hat (1993), Clockers problematizes the "hard" exterior associated with both their cinematic and musical variations. [4] Strike is relatively soft--he drinks a Yoo Hoo-like soft drink called Moo Moo rather than the ubiquitous "forties" malt liquor; he collects and plays with model trains; and, most importantly, he's often emasculated in the face of authority. In almost all of his interactions with authority figures, Strike is inarticulate (in the novel he even stutters when tense), ineffectual, and childlike--behaviors that hint at his youth and inexperience. An interesting correlative to this is the fact that all the authority figures complicating Strike's life are distanced from him by generational factors (with Andre the housing cop coming the closest in age), as well as the more obvious structural and ideological factors. Generational miscommunication and disappointment reside at the core of many of the hood films' tensions, with agency and neighborhood control often ceded to a younger generation and elders characterized as ineffectual. Clockers inverts this relationship, not necessarily as a critique of Strike so much as to reinsert the influence of elders back into contemporary African American popular culture.

Living in the City: Brooklyn's Many-Storied Pasts

My sisters and I and the other black children were a minority at P.S. 84, but we were not much concerned about it. Blacks from the islands and the growing number from the South would in a few years reverse the racial make up of the [Brownsville] neighborhood, and the change would be accompanied by mounting bad feeling, but at that time [the 1930s] the race line was not drawn in the same way it is today. As I remember it, the school was about 80 percent white, mostly Jewish children; all the teachers were white, and nearly all were Jewish. We were not particularly conscious of that fact, either. (Chisholm 47)

The second change Lee made was in shifting the novel's setting from the Roosevelt Houses in Dempsy--a fictional New Jersey location roughly based on Jersey City--to the "Nelson Mandela Houses" of Brooklyn (in actuality the Gowanus Houses, located on the border of the borough's Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill sections). The effect of this move is quite significant, despite Lee's claim that "projects are projects" (qtd. in Bradley 32). First, by relocating to Brooklyn, Lee situated the film in the already storied and familiar spatial parameters of the hood. While the majority of hood films were set in Los Angeles, a few significant examples, such as Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich, 1991) and Juice were located in New York City; only one, New Jersey Drive, was set in New Jersey. This move contributes to the film's already complex interweaving of references and temporalities. On the one hand, the film's frenetic camera techniques, identifiable urban location, rap-based soundtrack, up-to-the-minute fashions, and references to contemporary African American popular culture announce its similarities with hood films and elements of the hood chronotope, especially Menace. [5] But this shift in location must also be viewed in the context of Lee's entire cinematic ceuvre, which, from almost its beginning, has both acknowledged and explored the past in the context of the present--symbolized most often by references to particular characters' (and by extension the city's) Southern roots. This appears in Lee's work as early as Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and has continued throughout his career, most notably in School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn. Thus, the move to Brooklyn locates Clockers in a particular urban history which acknowledges the effects of migration and ghettoization.

In order to see how this works, it is important to understand Brooklyn's history as an African American community, a history that's overlooked in most studies of urban African American migration as it pertains to metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and even New York City, where discussion is often limited to Harlem. During the Great Migration, Harlem, in particular, played a crucial role as a black city within a city--a "promised land"--for many rural migrants. However, Brooklyn has its own concurrent history as a home for a large African American population, a result of the same demographic shifts that helped constitute Harlem. As early as the turn of the century, Brooklyn-- specifically the areas of Bedford and Stuyvessant--was home to an established black, predominantly middleclass population. In addition, as historian Ernest Quimby notes, through the twenties many Harlem blacks migrated the short distance to Brooklyn "seeking social mobility and escape" from the factors that had alr eady begun to turn their area into a ghetto (229). The expansion of the New York City subway system (specifically the A-train) to the borough in 1936 facilitated the migration of Harlemites to Brooklyn, resulting in increases in the number of migrants and in the area's African American population (Quimby 232). This local migration, combined with the continuing addition of new arrivals from the rural South and the Caribbean, expanded the neighborhood's black population, a phenomenon remembered in the Chishoim quote which introduces this section. The area's demographic growth continued through mid-century (especially with the employment offered by the Brooklyn naval yards) and into the eighties. At this time, as David McCullough argues, Bed-Stuy became synonymous with black, and has remained so ever since (212). Not coincidentally, this last development also coincides with Lee's career, so much so that, in the eighties, cinematic representations of black Brooklyn became synonymous with Spike Lee.

With the expansion of Brooklyn's African American population, the BedStuy, Brownsville, and Boerum Hill sections of Brooklyn, among others, transformed from being relatively integrated to increasingly isolated and marginalized, as other ethnic groups emigrated to different parts of the borough (Bensonhurst), to other New York City boroughs (Queens, Staten Island), or to the suburbs (Long Island, Westchester County, New Jersey). Property speculation, absentee landlords, and governmental disinterest in the sixties and seventies resulted in the destruction of the area's property values and the increasing segregation and concurrent ghettoization of the black community--a ghettoization similar to that experienced in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and other major metropolitan areas. This was complicated by the construction and subsequent abandonment (through decreases in funding and governmental interest) of low-income housing projects, of which the Gowanus (Nelson Mandela) Houses are a prime example. As Quimby ob serves, "Anti-blockbusting campaigns, urban renewal, and the construction of exclusively low-income housing projects ... erode[d] the sense of community, prevent[ed] social mobility, thwart[edl economic and political mobilization, and allow[ed] the containment and administrative manipulation of Blacks" (236). A similar view of projects in general has been expounded by Richard Price, a product of them himself, who observes, "What was amazing to me was how the projects went from launching pads for working-class families to just terminals where generations are stacked up in the same apartment because there's no place to go" (qtd. in Werner 10-11). Both observations echo the concerns of many contemporary African American filmmakers, who use similar metaphors of entrapment in depicting discrete city spaces.

All of this adds complexity to Lee's seemingly simple or innocent choice to relocate Clockers to Brooklyn, especially the area's significance as a terminal point of sorts. While it may have been that it was cheaper and easier to shoot in Brooklyn, or that Lee was more comfortable working in a familiar location, neither factor diminishes the importance of the choice of Brooklyn for the film's setting. On the one hand, the borough is the final destination of the majority of New York's subway lines that run southeast. Brooklyn is where you get off, unless you want to head all the way back through Manhattan to Queens--though characters in Clockers, except for Victor (Isaiah Washington), never head in that direction. [6] As I've suggested, Brooklyn was also the end point for many who had experienced multiple dislocations and migrations--the Middle Passage, the South, Harlem. In this history, Brooklyn is more than just a stopover or transitional point, as places such as Memphis were for many migrants. Brooklyn is the literal end of the line after many shifts and movements. And, as Price's observation regarding the transformation of housing projects suggests, Brooklyn became a metaphorical terminal point as well, as what was once the hope of moving from the poverty of the rural South, or the urban decay of Harlem, became the stagnation of the projects and economic displacement. In this sense, the ultimate irony of all this mobility is that its end result is entrapment.

The architectonics of Clockers clearly make this point. Most of the film is shot in the projects' central courtyard, a tree- and bench-lined circular plaza with a raised concrete platform that the community has ceded to Strike, his crew, and the crack business. According to Amy Taubin, this area "is both stage and prison--an inversion of Foucault's panopticon. Trapped within it, Strike is under constant surveillance, vulnerable to aggressors who enter from all sides" (71). This aspect of the projects is also noted in the novel:

Strike scanned the canyon walls of the Roosevelt Houses. There were thirteen high rises, twelve hundred families over two square blocks, and the housing office gave the Fury [Housing Police] access to any vacant apartment for surveillance, so Strike never knew when or where they might be scoping him out. (Price 4)

Furthermore, the construction of this particular mise-en-scene is illustrative of Foucault's concept of the "spatialization of power," as formulated by Edward Soja, in which cultural hierarchies are mapped onto specific landscapes (21). Here, the projects become a carceral city, in which the surrounding buildings act as sentries, looking down on the activities taking place below, guarding the boundaries of the projects, and barring movement from within their perimeter.

Perhaps the "heterotopia" is a more appropriate Foucauldian concept with which to describe the film's rendering of the Mandela Houses. According to Foucault, a heterotopia is a "countersite" in which "all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted." The foundation of Foucault's heterotopia is its dual roles as actually lived space (his examples include prisons, asylums, and cemeteries) and "other" spaces which are "absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about" (24). Importantly, as Soja discusses, heterotopias "are constituted in every society, but take quite varied forms and change over time, as 'history unfolds' in its inherent spatiality" (17). In this understanding of heterotopias, Soja not only indicates Foucault's fundamental concern with space and power--and the related and equal importance given to the intersections of space and time ("heterochronies," according to Foucault) [7]--but he also points to the ways in which we can begin to understand the historicity behind Price's comments about the projects, and various characters' experiences of the shifting definitions of the Mandela Houses.

As a socially constituted space, the Mandela Houses both reflect and refract their neighboring communities, societies, and histories. Clockers, especially its focus on boundaries, indicates that the projects (and most of their residents) may abut the surrounding communities, but they are not necessarily "of" the community. True, they contain social relations which mirror the society constituting them, but the projects are roped off from the community, with most pro-f ilmic events occurring there. What lies beyond the heterotopia of the Mandela Houses is an urban frontier not freely accessible to the characters imprisoned within the projects' visible and historic barricades. Most of the characters show little inclination or desire to leave their immediate surroundings, at least not if they don't have to. In fact, the majority of characters seem to have been stripped of the ability even to envision an alternative existence--perhaps the most telling way that we can understand the space as a heterotopia. Strike and Victor differ from the other characters because they, especially Victor, can see outside the projects. [8] Victor works two demeaning and underpaid jobs in order to save enough money to move his family out of the projects, a desire based on the possibility of a literal shift out of their present environment and on a more figurative desire for social (and economic) mobility from the underclass to the working/middle class. Strike's flight, on the other hand, is mostly imaginary, as his fantasies about trains carry him away from his surroundings only in his mind. Strike doesn't experience real movement until the end of the film, though it is at least foreshadowed by these earlier scenes. The paradox of this situation is frustratedly articulated by Andre to Strike: "There's more than just these projects out there, you know. Don't you want to go someplace you've never been before? ... you love trains but you've only ridden the subway." Here, the stasis of the projects is clearly juxtaposed against the movement of subways and trains. By this time, however, subways offer no real exit--a clear reversal of their role from earlier in the century. It may be that Strike's knowledge of trains--and the fact that he has already moved out of the projects--will be his ticket out.

Before moving on to a discussion of the third change from the novel, I'd like to consider the ways Lee reframes the film's city spaces in relation to the conventions of the hood chronotope. On the one hand (and as I've already mentioned), the shift of settings brings the narrative into a closer relationship to the familiar boundaries of the hood as seen in films like Juice, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Just Another Girl on the IRT (Leslie Harris, 1993), and New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991). Visually, the mise-en-scene resembles the spatial integrity of many of its predecessors, especially in the way that it calls attention to its location through prominently placed "signage"--the Nelson Mandela Houses and the references to Brooklyn and "Crooklyn" being the most obvious. Yet the film reworks the hood films' emphasis on "real" space (real streets and street signs, and the calling out of specific urban areas, for example) by constructing a space that is concurrently real (shot on location) and manufactured (announced by the self-referentiality of the film's editing, camera movement, cinematography, and mise-en-scene). In its reworking of these conventions, Clockers transforms the hood chronotope into chronotopic traces, which then dialogue with other generic and historical traces or motifs. According to Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, a chronotopic motif serves as an "aura" of another genre (375)--a reminder of another space and time. In Clockers the train, a reminder of another place and time, is the central chronotopic motif dialoguing with the hood.

The film's locations are both familiar and recognizable to most of its targeted audience. However, the way that the film breaks down this a priori generic spatial integrity makes it interesting for my analysis, and indicates the way that the hood gradually diminishes in importance from black-directed films released after Clockers (or, alternatively, it returns as a trope or trace in a selection of these later films, for instance F. Gary Gray's Set If Off). As I've stated, almost all of the action takes place within the confines of the projects, even though the two main characters, Rocco and Strike, are not themselves residents (Strike, however, was raised there). Most of the scenes are exterior shots, filmed on location in the projects' central plaza. The film rarely shifts to interior shots, instead centering its narrative attentions on the activity in this park-like area. In Lee's articulation of the space, especially in the opening shots, the plaza differs from more conventional renderings of inner-city s pace. For example, it is green, lush, and infused with a rich light that calls attention to the colors found in both the space's vegetation and the clothing worn by the clockers. Furthermore, it is lively and filled with the comings and goings of members of the community, a pleasant and ironic setting for crack entrepreneurs. Yet even in this shift from the more dystopian and desolate urbanscape of the hood film, the plaza maintains an integrity with its real location, the Gowanus Houses. It appears to be "authentic." [9]

The film's excursions outside of this space draw attention to the constructed nature of its mise-en-scene and, by relation, foreground the constructedness of representation as a whole. Lee's experimentation with filmic form is well-known, and Clockers is no exception. In fact, it is a continuation of the development of certain "signature" techniques, such as the effect of placing characters and camera on a moving dolly while taking care to keep the changing background in focus. The film foregrounds its own processes of manufacture, especially in its camera movement, editing, mise-en-scene, and cinematography. In particular, the variety of film stock and lighting techniques calls attention to the tactile nature of the film's images. The film's mise-en-scene also draws attention to Lee's experimentation. Lee has always been known for constructing specific sets to meet his diegetic needs, a fact that provoked criticism in the mainstream press for Do the Right Thing because it changed the look and nature of an e xisting city block in BedStuy. In Clockers, the projects remain virtually untouched. It is the surrounding spaces--Ahab's, the bar, Strike's apartment, the train--that are differentiated from the Mandela Houses.

The film differentiates the bar and Ahab's from Strike's apartment and the train through changes in setting, sets, and lighting. The Kool Breeze and Ahab's are defined through their relationship to pro-filmic violence: They are the sites in which violence is first planned and then performed, respectively. In effect, they enable the entire narrative in that the actions that take place in these spaces set off the remaining chain of events. Both sites, which we see only at night, are characterized by brightly lit and colorful signage-- Ahab's complete with a revolving whale that blows out steam through its airhole. The spaces are also the sites of some of the film's most aggressive cinematography. For instance, the scene in which Strike confronts Darryl (Steve White) before presumably murdering him is introduced in a close up of a tabloid headline reading "Crooklyn" before the camera tracks back to reveal a deep focus shot with Strike in the foreground (from a low angle) and a billboard announcing "No More Pack ing" above his head. Significantly, Ahab's--and this scene in particular-- will be revisited in various characters' flashbacks, with a gritty image quality diluting the hypersaturated colors of the original scene.

The Kool Breeze is also introduced by its brightly lit sign, which appears in an establishing shot prior to a cut, first to television images of a rap video, and finally into the interior of the bar. Once inside, the editing and cinematography are quite conventional, with Victor and Strike framed in a two-shot as they discuss Darryl. Similar editing and cinematography are maintained when Rocco and his partner (John Turturro) enter the bar to question its patrons. In both of these examples, time occurs in the narrative present, and the Kool Breeze is introduced through the rap images on television which link the activities presented in the videos and advertisements for malt liquor with those taking place in the bar. Later in the film, the bar, like Ahab's, will be returned to in flashbacks. In these flashbacks, the cinematography is gritty, the colors are diluted, and the rap images have disappeared.

These spaces, articulated through their relationship to violence, differ from those that are more closely associated with Strike--his apartment and the train, which can only be described as lush. Strike's apartment is a run-of-the-mill tenement space, characterized by aged woodwork and walls, and installment plan furniture. As such, the apartment is indistinguishable from other spaces of lesser narrative importance, such as Victor's apartment in the projects. Yet it is the way that the space is shot that makes it so interesting. As in the later scenes with the train, the scenes set in the apartment are fused with a golden, glowing light, streaming through two windows in the background and providing everything in the middle- and foregrounds with a slight halo. But there's no narrative reason for this use of lighting. In fact the narrative undercuts this treatment in the activities that take place in these scenes: One time Strike, in a misguided attempt at mentoring, is teaching Tyrone, a neighborhood kid, how to cut and weigh crack cocaine; and the second time Strike is preparing to leave town. In both examples a direct narrative link is made with the trains, foreshadowed in these scenes but not realized until the film's conclusion. Prior to teaching Tyrone about the drug business, Strike shows him his collection of model trains and teaches Tyrone their history, a history that will be reiterated by Tyrone to his mother at the film's conclusion. Later, when Strike is preparing to leave town, he pauses long enough to write a note to his landlord, leaving his trains to Tyrone. The rendering of the train in the film's conclusion has already been foreshadowed here.

As I mentioned above, it's only in Clockers' cinematic articulation of the Mandela Houses--and a few other scenes (mostly street scenes, especially around Rodney's store and the police station)--that the film's cinematography is clearly influenced by the hood chronotope. These scenes help define and articulate the urbanscape, a space already identified in earlier films as the hood. Yet the scenes outside of the boundaries of the projects indicate that Clockers is more than an appropriation of hood film conventions. Its manufacture of these "other spaces," these heterotopias, indicates a self-conscious attempt to point to the possibility that the cinematic city might be more manufactured than it first appears. In fact, it might be, as in Ahab's, the Kool Breeze, and Strike's apartment, an entirely constructed terrain. This, in and of itself, already delineates Clockers from the "hip hop ... drug genre." But it is where the traces of the hood chronotope and Lee's self-conscious image manufacturing start to dia logue with the train that the text's polyphony expands to acknowledge history, especially the links between the city and African American migration.

Take the A(mtrak) Train: Trains, Sites, and Chronotopes

In classical narrative cinema the train was generally given the role of integration and linkage, of stabilization, especially in terms of American national identity: the mythology of assimilation to a "universal" American identity. (Kirby 10)

The significance of the shift in setting, and its relationship to what Paul Gilroy refers to, in another context, as "movement, relocation, displacement, and restlessness" (133), is evidenced in Lee's third and most crucial change from the novel--Strike's fascination with trains. In the novel, Strike has few interests outside of making money and dealing drugs. He "had never really liked music. He had never cared about sports, even girls that much if he thought about it" (Price 622). Strike's world revolves solely around his relationship with Rodney and the other clockers. This conforms with the novel's strategy of splitting point of view between Strike and Rocco, and its less sympathetic approach to Strike's character. In the film, however, Strike's hobby of collecting model trains humanizes his character--for who would expect a drug dealer to have any interests outside of the criminality that defines and limits him (the same criminality that defined and limited him in the novel, and that wholly limits Caine in Menace)? Lynne Kirby suggests that between 1880 and World War I the "cult" of toy trains "firmly linked masculinity with railroading" (78). However, she continues, African American boys "were barred" from fulfilling dreams of "glamorous railroad careers as engineers because of skin color," ironically undercutting the mythology of assimilation Kirby discusses in the comments opening this section. The most that young black men could hope for was to become Pullman porters, though Kirby notes that this was also a position of "esteem" (80). What is interesting here is that it is Strike's hobby, rather than his drug dealing or gun, that defines him as a man. Yet Strike's interest in and knowledge of the history of trains were viewed as insignificant by most viewers and critics of the film, if they mentioned it at all. For the more cynical viewers, the trains were nothing more than the enabling metaphor for the film's "rapturous" finale, or, worse, as just another detail of the mise-en-scene, simply an excuse fo r Strike's outfit of overalls at the beginning of the film (Brown 71).

While the trains humanize Strike, they also alter the novel's conclusion. Rather than leaving town on a Greyhound bus from the Port Authority bus terminal as he does in the novel, the cinematic Strike flees on a train from Penn Station. The change is made more powerful by the way Lee shot the final scene: filtered with golden light and soft-focus lenses, a marked difference from the gritty cinematography constituting most of the film. The combination of Strike's hobby and Clockers' conclusion enables Lee to further historicize contemporary cinematic representations of the black city. [10] Clockers' metonymic use of trains thus points to the interconnected histories of African American migration, the rise of inner-city ghettoes, and the subsequent demise of a black middle class, and gives ironic import to Amy Taubin's observation that "no one can escape from the past" (76). Furthermore, the train references the related tropes of mobility and entrapment, two of the most recurrent themes in African American cul tural production in the twentieth century and in African American films from this time period, and a central theme of hood films.

To understand all this it is important that we remain aware of the complex historical role migration has played as a central trope in African American cultural production in particular, and the African diaspora as a whole. Here my interests and theoretical inclinations intersect with those of Paul Gilroy as developed in The Black Atlantic. For Gilroy, among others, an understanding of the construction of identity, and a politics of identity, is directly related to the concepts of location and dislocation. As he states, "It would appear that there are large questions raised about the direction and character of black culture and art if we take the powerful effects of even temporary experiences of exile, relocation, and displacement into account" (18). While in this context Gilroy is discussing the influence of freely chosen travel experiences on particular individuals--W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, for example--his observations regarding the significance of movement are relevant to the experiences of Af rican Americans in general. The question thus becomes not only how does travel affect an individual's ideological outlook and sense of self, but also how does massive migration affect or transform cultural production and reception and how is this further shaped by limitations on movement and agency? In short, how have "successive displacements, migrations, and journeys (forced and otherwise) come to constitute ... black cultures' special conditions of existence" (111)?

Arthur Jafa's notion of "primal sites" is also relevant here, especially as it relates to the ways in which time, especially history, has a complex relationship to space in African American cultural production. In a review of Menace II Society, Jafa stresses the importance of understanding the role of primal sites in "black film practices grounded in African-American cultural assumptions." According to Jafa, primal sites are "those group experiences, such as the Middle Passage, that have determined so much of the psychic makeup of the African-American community." Furthermore, it's only through an understanding of such sites that we can begin to comprehend the ways in which African American filmmakers (in this discussion) reconfigure "hegemonic norms into conventions and methodologies better suited to African-American expressivity" (11). In his historically informed understanding of African American aesthetics, Jafa importantly (though perhaps unconsciously) links space and time. In Jafa's explanation, a prim al site is defined as a group experience such as the Middle Passage. In this attempt to define what is fundamentally a temporal metaphor, Jafa relies on spatial terms. In effect, what he accomplishes in this link of spatial and temporal boundaries is similar to my understanding of the cinematic chronotope, especially as it pertains to representations of urban space and its relationship to black culture and history.

Keeping in mind the history of migration and how it relates to the film's Brooklyn location, Strike's fascination with trains is a particularly telling addition, especially if we understand the train as a chronotopic motif. In Clockers' narrative, the train forms just this sort of spatio-temporal unity, characteristic of the chronotope, that fuses the history of twentieth-century African American migration, the growth of an identifiable black city space, and the ghettoization of the black city together into one sign. In this context the train symbolizes the contradictions and constestations of African American mobility by signifying a past, a present, and--in the case of the film's conclusion--a possible future that is immeasurably intertwined with the city.

Border Crossing: Spike, Strike, and the Legacy of the Porter

It's no accident that Lee's additions Clockers would include the train because the train chronotope helps link the film's urban present with both its urban and rural pasts. However, the train also raises important questions regarding African American mobility, both in its literal movement from place to place and in the figurative sense as a symbol of African American social mobility. Mobility and entrapment have been themes in African American films from almost their very inception and increasingly became a central thematic concern (in both film and literature) as the nation's black population's association with the city increased, and the city became equated with a dystopian economic and social prison (no more city on the hill). In short, the focus on mobility became more pressing as the urbanscape went from promised land to ghetto.

Clockers is no different in this respect, as it, like the hood films it references, focuses on the sense of entrapment and lack of agency that the project's prison-like spaces engender in its characters. As I've mentioned, most characters are content to remain in the confines of the hood, living (and often dying) in the same limited spaces. In fact, they can't envision any other existence. But some of the characters-- Victor and Strike, in particular--look beyond the hood, and desire (Strike belatedly) an escape from their surroundings. Victor and Strike thus provide the link with the second aspect of the film's concern with mobility, that which is concurrently linked to the literal mobility of escape, and to a more figurative social mobility and agency. This expands my understanding of the role of the train chronotope in the film. Not only does the train represent a form of travel--Strike's escape--but it also references social mobility, especially in the links it makes to African American history and the P ullman porter.

In this regard, I'd like to return to Paul Gilroy's discussion of the train chronotope and its relationship to the Pullman porter. According to Gilroy, "The porters worked in ways that both continued patterns of exploitation established during slavery and anticipated the novel forms of debasement and humiliation associated with contemporary service work" (133). In other words, the seeming social mobility of the porter's position rested upon a limited foundation. Paradoxically, the porter's movement illustrates the curiously constructed and conscripted terms of progress as experienced by African Americans--and, by extension, black diasporic peoples--in what Gilroy defines as early modernism. For in this moment of massive industrialization (of which the train and film are by-products), and its attendant opening of new frontiers, some boundaries--however much they gave the illusion of shifting--may ultimately have remained the same. For Gilroy, the history of the train presents a significant mediation of the co ntradictions and limitations of African American mobility, specifically as it relates to the experiences of the Pullman porter and the Jim Crow car. Gilroy identifies the porter as "an important symbol of the new opportunities and the new constraints that fell upon blacks in the 19th century" (133). In a similar way, the city symbolized new opportunities and constraints, or as Charles Scruggs has outlined, "the city as a symbol of community, of home" and "the city of brute fact in which blacks in the 20th century have had to live" (4). Porters "enjoyed" increased mobility--both physical and economic--but this was always mediated by their positions as servants. If not porters, then African American passengers were segregated to the Jim Crow cars.

An important facet of the porter's existence was that his job equipped him with the often problematic ability to move between worlds--to cross borders. While serving the train's white passengers, the porter also possessed a "freedom" that allowed him to move into (though never to occupy) cars not allowed other African American passengers. In this position, porters mediated the tension between two segregated poles. Strike's position in the narrative, because it is so closely aligned with trains and the concurrent references to migration and mobility, is similar to that of the porter, but this similarity is not unproblematic. At the beginning of the film, there is little to differentiate Strike from his clocker counterparts. The murder of a local dealer linked with his boss, Rodney Little, and Victor's subsequent confession mark Strike for the unwanted attention of the homicide detectives. As Rocco and his partner increasingly interact with and harass Strike, his safety within his community and with Rodney dra stically decreases because he is increasingly forced out of this world. The detectives, Rocco in particular, purposely pursue Strike, and their most effective weapon is to "out" him by talking to him in full view of the community. In effect, Strike is forced to become an unwilling and literal border-crosser, rather than just an imaginary one with his trains. But the more he is insinuated into the detectives' world, the more his life is endangered. Ultimately, Strike's movement between the two worlds becomes the threat--he is imagined to have crossed a line- that forces Rodney to order his execution. The end result of this maneuvering is that Strike is compelled to leave town, and is rejected by his family, the community, the police, and Rodney.

Strike's experiences are indicative of the danger inherent in African American border-crossing, a danger, however, that is more fully exemplified in Victor's experiences. In a discussion focusing on Chester Himes's A Rage in Harlem, Manthia Diawara identifies the train's ability both to offer mobility and to contradict that which it symbolizes. As he notes,

The train's power ... coincides with the devaluation of Black life. The train is also powerful because of its mobility; nothing hinders its traversing of Harlem, and its movements into the white world which connotes power, economic prosperity, and freedom. Mobility empowers the train ... and the lack of mobility constitutes a check on the freedom of Black people. (530).

Nowhere are the pressures of these contradictions more apparent than in Victor's struggles to break free.

Everyone, especially Strike, is surprised when Victor confesses to Darryl's murder. In the course of his investigation, Rocco is convinced that Strike committed the murder, not Victor, because, in Rocco's words, "Victor's a good kid, not the murdering type." Victor is presented sympathetically throughout the narrative: He's a family man who is supporting a wife, two kids, and his mother from the income of two jobs. In addition, he's trying to save enough money to move his family outside the projects by purchasing a co-op and becoming a property owner. By all accounts, Rocco is correct to look to Strike for the murder, since Strike is the homeboy, the clocker, the criminal with a record.

Cracks start appearing in Victor's near-perfect facade, cracks that are directly linked to his ambitions. In the course of Rocco's investigation, he hears nothing but praise for Victor. But Rocco also learns of a couple of incidents in which Victor had disputes with different young men from the neighborhood, all of whom flash large piles of cash at Victor and verbally demean him. By the film's conclusion, we learn that Victor was responsible for Darryl's death, and that the motive is what Diawara, among others, has referred to as "Black rage ... a set of violent and uncontrollable relations in Black communities induced by a sense of frustration, confinement, and White racism" (528). In Mrs. Dunham's flashback version of events, we see Victor succumb momentarily to his rage, which is then directed at Darryl, a representative of every frustration preventing Victor's dreams from coming to fruition, of every situation stripping him of his agency. While Darryl is the target, the cause of his death is related more to Victor's realization that his dreams for mobility are undervalued, even in his own community (or at least in the youth that control it). Strike, on the other hand, is a porter figure because he shifts between two worlds; however, unlike the porter, Strike is eventually forced to choose a new world, since he no longer fits into either. Thus, Diawara's and Gilroy's identification of the contradictions inherent in the role of the porter indicates the cultural context from which the trains in Clockers emerge, and identifies the train as an important primal site of African American movement.

The film concludes with golden shots of Strike riding on a train, literally heading into the sunset. These shots are intercut with images of Scientific (Sticky Fingaz), one of Strike's clockers, lying dead in a pool of his own blood, as Tyrone plays with Strike's trains (now located in his apartment) while passing on their history--Strike's legacy--to his mother. It would be easy to read this ending as overly optimistic, "rapturous," or moral. Or one could conclude that the film lapses into a nostalgia or a pessimism "which views the city as bad" (Diawara 535), but to do so would be to miss the point. To paraphrase Gilroy again, there are important questions to be raised about black culture if the effects of experiences of even temporary movement and displacement are taken into account. While Strike's train ride might lead out of the city, it signifies the themes of mobility and escape at the core of many contemporary African American cinematic, especially hood, narratives. To leave the city is perhaps in th e final analysis not an act of nos-talgia or a form of anti-urbanism, for there is neither the suggestion that Strike is returning to his rural roots nor that he is fleeing from urban life in general. It might be that in this ending Lee is illustrating Gilroy's explication of "the association of self-exploration with the exploration of new territories," at least for Strike (133). In relocating his version of events to Brooklyn and by utilizing the train in a metonymical manner, Lee constructs a version of the contemporary African American city that concurrently acknowledges its history of migrations while avoiding the nihilism of many contemporary hood films set in similar locations. In the process he expands the boundaries of current African American cinema and provides at least one of his protagonists with agency, no small feat.

Paula J. Massood, who is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of Cities in Black: Cinematic Representations of the African American Urbanscape, forthcoming from Temple University Press.


(1.) I'm using the term African American city to refer to those specific areas of cities that have been historically the centers of African American residency and culture-for instance, New York City's Harlem and certain areas of Brooklyn (and Manhattan's San Juan Hill and Little Africa before them), Los Angeles' Central Avenue district and Watts, and Chicago's South Side. At issue here is the way In which the phrase demarcates more than just a specific and locatable geographic area, it also signifies black cultural ownership (often only symbolic) and occupancy of certain urbanscapes.

(2.) Boyz offers perhaps the nineties' most sympathetic rendering of an inner-city African American youth. But Tre does not apply here because he neither deals nor uses drugs, nor is he involved with gangs. In fact, as a college-bound overachiever, Tre is the epitome of the American Dream.

(3.) As Lee states, "I really wasn't interested In telling a cop's story. I was much more passionate about telling the story of this young African-American kid who comes from a strong family, who's gone off the straight and narrow and has turned to a life of drugs" (qtd. in Bernstein 202).

(4.) On this phenomenon, see Boyd; Dyson; and Kennedy. In Kennedy's piece, Tarantino observes, "Someone said to me at Sundance when Reservoir Dogs was there, 'You know what you've done, you've given white boys the kind of movies black kids get. You know like Juice, and ... Menace II Society, looking cool, being bad, with a fuck you attitude'" (32).

(5.) In an Interesting twist, Lee changes many of the real products and references to fictional spin-offs of African American popular culture. The result is not only parodic, but also is often critical of those aspects of pop culture that are closely aligned with gangsta life. For example, a television commercial advertising malt liquor appropriates and burlesques the misogynist and hyper-masculine content of many gangsta rap music videos. Since the ad appears in a cutaway from a scene in which Strike and Victor unexpectedly meet in a bar, the combined technique of video playback and hip hop soundtrack contributes to the ad's grotesque images and can't help but be read as an indictment of its content Yet while the above description makes the scene seem didactic, the images remain on screen momentarily, and no other commentary is supplied.

A more didactic example of Lee's critiques of thug life comes in a billboard advertising loose tobacco. The billboard appears twice. On the first occasion it is set in the background of the frame as Strike heads toward Ahab's (fast food) Restaurant on the way to shoot Darryl. The composition is compelling, with Strike in the foreground and his gun hidden undemeath a newspaper (whose headline not coincidentally reads "Crooklyn") and the billboard looming above him in the background. The low-angle shot positions the sign's text, "no More Packing," directly above Strike's head and functions as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action taking place in the foreground. A similar billboard appears at the film's conclusion. As Strike is leaving town, heading into the sunset via. Amtrak, the sign, in the distance, momentarily crosses his view. Again, the billboard acts as a sort of chorus; however this time the meaning of the text is far less oblique since the earlier sign set up the relationship between packi ng and guns. The text is not so much a comment in this instance as it is a direct demand for a change in behavior. In effect, the sign functions almost on a similar plane as the text at the beginning of Boyz which details the number of black-on-black homicides, or in Furious's speech regarding the drugs, liquor, and violence killing off black inner-city communities. Whether on its literal level of smoking, or its figurative level as gun-related violence, the billboard demands a stop to deadly behaviors.

(6.) Almost all the film's action is set in Brooklyn. In fact, the story shifts only once to another location, when Rooco visits the Manhattan boutique that had previously employed Victor as a security guard.

(7.) Without delving much further into the topic of heterotopias and heterochronies, I would like to suggest the similarities they share with my use of Bakhtin's chronotope. As the chronotope combines spatial and temporal elements into a discrete unit of analysis--a given object, space, or person--so too does the heterotopia allow for time in its rendering of space ("history unfolding in its inherent spatiality"). While I would hesitate to go as far as identifying the film's rendering of the projects as a chronotope, I do believe in the correlations between the two concepts. The reason that I would not consider the projects to be a chronotope here is because of their relationship to the hood chronotope and to the African American urbanscape in general. They are but one aspect of the urbanscape's spatialized history.

(8.) It's no accident that discussions of spatiality, especially as related to the heterotopia, often utilize metaphors of vision and, to a lesser extent, self-constitution. We can see this even In Foucault's discussion of the heterotopia, in which he equates the mirror with his understanding of the heterotopia: "The mirror makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there" (24). Strike's fantasies of movement might fulfill a similar operation. On the one hand, they are real (at least by the end of the film), yet in order to be perceived and finally realized, they have to pass through (as well as be enabled by) his trains.

(9.) The film's concern with the intersections between the manufactured and the real are introduced in its opening credits, which appear over photographic recreations of the victims of actual drug-related homicides. This, more than Singleton's statistics, graphically points to the dangers of inner-city living.

(10.) Clockers is not the first contemporary African American film to use the railroad. The train is significant in Posse as a symbol of both promise and demise, and links the film's late nineteenth-century setting with its contemporary context. A more interesting use of trains appears in Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger (1990), which itself references his earlier Killer of Sheep in its characters' journey along the rails. In Sleep the train injects a Southern rural past, in the form of trickster Harry Mention, in a Los Angeles' family's modem present.

Another related appearance of the train--at least symbolically--is in Boyz's opening vignette, in which Tre, Ricky, Doughboy, and friends walk along the tracks in South Central on the way to look at a dead body. The most obvious reference for this was the earlier Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986); however it can be traced back even further to Burnett's Killer of Sheep, which contains similar scenes of young boys playing on the tracks. In fact, the shots are so similar (complete with throwing rocks) that I'd go so far as suggest that the scene in Boyz is a quotation of the earlier film. Significantly, the possibilities and limitations for young boys living in the inner city are directly linked to the railroad.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bernstein, Jonathan. "Spike Lee." Face Dec. 1997: 202.

Boyd, Todd. Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture From the 'Hood and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.

Bradley, David. "Spike Lee's Inferno, The Drug Underworld." New York Times 10 Sep. 1995: 29,32.

Brown, Georgia, and Amy Taubin. "Clocking In: Two Critics Rate Spike Lee's Ultimate Hood Movie." Village Voice 19 Sep. 1995: 71, 76.

Charles, Nick. "Sharpened Spike: After Crooklyn's Softer Side, Lee Reverts to Hard Edges in Gritty Clockers." Daily News 22 Sep. 1995: 47.

Chisholm, Shirley. "Back to Brooklyn." The Brooklyn Reader. Ed. Andrea Wyatt Sexton and Alice Leccese Powers. New York: Harmony Books, 1994. 42-51.

Diawara, Manthia. "Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black Cinema." African American Review 27 (1993): 525-37.

Dyson, E. Michael. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces." Trans. Jay Miskowiec. diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Jafa, Arthur. "Like Rashomon But Different: The New Black Cinema." Artfowm June 1993:10-11.

Kennedy, Lisa. "Natural Born Filmmaker: Quentin Tarantino Versus the Film Geeks." Village Voice 25 Oct. 1994: 32.

Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT P, 1960.

McCullough, David. Brooklyn--And How It Got That Way. New York: Dial, 1983.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Price, Richard. Clockers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Quimby, Ernest. "Bedford-Stuyvesant." Brooklyn USA: The Fourth Largest City in America. Ed. Rita Seiden Miller. New York: Brooklyn College P, 1979. 229-38.

Schaefer, Stephen. "Spike Makes 'Clockers' Timely." New York Post 25 Aug. 1995: 47.

Scruggs, Charles. Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Soja, Edward W. Postmodem Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York: Verso, 1989.
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Title Annotation:filmmaker Spike Lee
Author:Massood, Paula J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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