My favorite of Spike Lee’s movies is Crooklyn, his autobiographical sketch of his siblings and him growing up in a huge Brooklyn brownstone in the early 70s, during the months before and after his mother’s death. The story is told from the perspective of the one girl among the five kids, and Spike’s sister and one of his brothers helped him write the script; perhaps their input was what makes the film lose the simplistic feel of Spike’s other films, which even at their evocative best tend to feel like cartoons. The intro credits sequence very clearly portrays the 70s as a lost age of childhood freedom, where kids played and invented their own games on the street, among and engaged with each other, alive:
The central character, Troy, is interesting in a way filmmakers are often unwilling to make their female leads- susceptible to unkindness and liable to lie to her parents or about her brothers or her neighbors, willing to steal from the corner store for no good reason, angry and difficult while also imaginative and curious, for whom the loss of a mother feels all the deeper because of her own faltering, uncertain and changing self.
The world these kids inhabit, for all its minor dangers and major heartbreaks, was in some ways a remarkable one: one of the quirks of later 20th century America was that lower middle-class black families like the Lees often owned (and their quite poor tenants often lived in) some of the very most beautiful housing in the country; the house that Crooklyn is filmed in, for example, is now an absurdly fancy bed and breakfast:
Even if Lee’s production team chose an exaggeratedly beautiful home for the shooting, it’s not totally implausible that his childhood home looked more or less like this; my wife and I lived once in an apartment in Crown Heights that, while poorly heated, mouse infested, and badly maintained, still had all the impressive plaster molding and carved wood details that has made tens of thousands of these houses fetch millions of dollars apiece over the last two decades. As a friend of mine who worked for Habitat for Humanity remarked, early 20th century American urban architecture is often beautiful and well-built on a mass production scale, despite a century of neglect, thanks to the “infinity guys” getting off the boat every day from Europe with impressive artisanship and a willingness to accept low pay.
As economic autobiography, the film is perhaps a little stretched; while Troy’s friends refer to her family in the film as rich, they are clearly struggling with five kids on her mother’s teacher’s salary and her father’s starving artist routine as a jazz musician unwilling to compromise to make a living. In real life, Bill Lee, Spike’s dad, was a fairly accomplished jazz bassist and studio musician who cut albums with Bob Dylan, among others, and was probably bringing home a fair amount of dough, albeit intermittently. I don’t doubt that the strained marriage the film portrays, though, between the blissed-out and somewhat useless Dashiki-clad father and the mother, painfully and angrily trying to manage and pay for their giant house and family, is true enough to the Lee kids’ remembrance.
One of the most insidious presuppositions of the post-Freudian era has been that only the happiest families can make for happy childhoods, that “sticking two together,” (in the words of Outkast) is only worth it when kids are spared scenes of anger and recrimination between their parents. But, as Crooklyn makes clear, the pleasures and mysteries of childhood are enabled by family life but find their focal point largely outside the home; Troy’s mother is a lighthouse for her, allowing her to venture forth bravely while knowing she can return home. Was the life of open discovery that Lee portrays, in which the block you live on is a world unto itself, a commons of kids free to make their own growing up, dependent also on a black marriage rate that still had a long way to fall?
Ta Nehisi Coates, like Spike Lee, had many siblings, a teacher mother and an artistic and quasi-bohemian father (an independent publisher rather than a musician), but unlike Spike Lee did not grow up with his parents married. Coates seems to share Lee’s nostalgia for the lost world of his childhood (this is the major theme of Coates’s, quite decent first book) while increasingly pressing this nostalgia into the service of sometimes comically inopportune racial grievance; here, for example, is a passage describing gentrification from his newest book:
To me, hundreds of thousands of black homeowners selling their places for hundreds of thousands of dollars each and moving to the burbs does not look like raping and lynching, but that may just be my failure of vision. As Crooklyn makes clear, the lost world of the 70s and 80s seems to seize almost every artist who grew up then, white and black, with a driving nostalgia, aware as we are that, for all their cossetted spoiling, our own kids are deprived of much of the freedom from supervision that meant so much to us, and aware even more of our own imaginative horizons shrinking with age. The decline of black affluence over that same period is a real phenomenon, worthy of concern in of itself, and there is no doubt that there is loss implicit in gentrification quite apart from the transfer of wealth; but we’re all, white and black, rich and poor, struggling with no longer knowing how to grow up.