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Film / Clockers

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"Just another stain on the sidewalk."

Clockers is a 1995 Spike Lee film (adapted from the novel of the same name by Richard Price) about the events surrounding the a murder of a night manager of a fast food restaurant in Brooklyn. Similar to The Wire, it's one part Police Procedural, one part "hood movie," taking a bleak look at the ways that The War on Drugs systematically destroys the lives of African-Americans living in the projects.

The "Clockers" of the title are the dealers who stand on the street corners and in the courtyards of the projects slinging drugs and keeping a constant watch out for the police, often hiring young children to act as lookouts as they ply their trade. Strike (Mekhi Phifer) is the leader of the crew that works the benches in his projects for neighborhood crime lord Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo). Another one of Rodney's dealers, Darryl Adams (Steve White), works out of a fast food restaurant in relative safety and comfort, but has been stealing from Rodney. Rodney hints that Darryl's spot would go to Strike if Strike were to take Darryl out.

That night, Darryl Adams is found murdered in the restaurant's parking lot. Homicide detectives Klein (Harvey Keitel) and Mazilli (John Turturro) arrive to investigate, and the case appears to be open-and-shut when a man named Victor Dunham (Isaiah Washington) confesses to shooting Adams in self defense. By all accounts, Victor is an honest, hard-working man struggling to raise a family in the projects on two low-income jobs. Klein doesn't believe the confession, especially when he discovers that Victor is Strike's older brother. Klein believes Victor is covering for Strike, who is a "known scumbag" in Rodney Little's organization who had motive to kill Darryl Adams.

Strike adamantly denies any involvement with the murder, but as Klein starts to hound the suspected killer more and more, Rodney's affable and caring facade as patron of the neighborhood begins to collapse as the investigation gets closer to his operation. With his brother in jail, Strike finds himself caught between a relentless detective and his ruthless boss and crew, because if there's one rule that everyone in the projects follow, it's that you never talk to the police.

Contains examples of:

  • Abled in the Adaptation: Strike in the novel is marked by a pronounced stutter which is completely excised from the film adaptation.
  • Absolute Xenophobe: describes some of the cops here. Including two cops who say they wish the projects were blown up to pieces, killing all the blacks in them.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The novel spends as much time on Klein's personal life as Strike's (making it a Two Lines, No Waiting story), but the movie focuses more on Strike.
  • Adaptational Location Change: The novel is set in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey (a common location in Price's novels), while the film is moved to Brooklyn in New York (itself a recurring location in Lee's films).
  • Adapted Out: Where to begin?
    • Rocco's wife and kids, and indeed his whole plotline, although his two-year-old daughter gets a mention in the film.
    • Sean Touhey, a big shot Hollywood actor who tags along with Klein and Mazilli to prepare for a role.
    • Strike's on-again-off-again girlfriend.
    • Champ, the drug lord that Rodney serves as a lieutenant for, and his enforcer Buddha Hat.
    • Papi, the Puerto Rican cocaine wholesaler who Rodney is doing business with behind Champ's back.
  • Asshole Victim: a few examples. Darryl Adams being the clearest one. He was a nasty drug dealer who showed no respect to others. And Scientific when he gets shot, even though he was a complete prick to everyone.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In the novel, Buddha Hat pays a visit to Strike, who believes he is about to be killed...only for Buddha Hat to take him to a restaurant and a peep show in New York, in what seems to be Buddha Hat's bizarre attempt at a gesture of friendship.
  • Bald of Authority: Delroy Lindo as Rodney Little
  • Black Humor: The homicide detectives at the Darryl Adams murder scene:
    "Must be his golf jacket. It's got eighteen holes."
    (seeing a defensive wound on the hand) "Slapped him five, on the light hand side!"
    "Looks like some kind of Egyptian peace symbol." "Yeah, it says 'goodbye.'"
    (seeing a bullet lodged in his jaw) "Marvelo the Magician! Caught a bullet in his teeth!" "Darryl, you've outdone Willie Mays! You've got my vote for MVP!"
  • Canon Welding: The end of Clockers features a cameo from the two Dirty Cops who killed Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A literal one that Strike shows to Tyrone midway through the movie, kept under the mattress in his apartment. it turns up missing later, and Tyrone uses it to kill Errol Barnes.
  • Children Are Innocent: Inverted in that many young kids grow up acting as lookouts for the clockers, and as a result they end up idolizing them. Rodney is also shown taking advantage of this through his candy store, where he is grooming children to be his future soldiers.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Andre lambasts Strike while beating him down for being part of the machine that destroys lives in the projects and compares him to the black thugs who mugged Rosa Parks. Strike, confused, asks "Who the fuck is Rosa Parks?" which only makes Andre angrier.
  • Cool Old Guy: Subverted with Rodney Little. He seems cool, but he's a monster.
  • Crapsack World: The projects.
  • Creator Cameo: Spike Lee shows up in bookend scenes of murder investigations as a Con-Ed worker on the street who talks to Klein before realizing he's a policeman.
  • Criminal Procedural: The day to day operations of the clockers is shown in detail.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Averted. So many murders happen around the projects it's more of a social gathering for both the police and the people in the neighborhood.
  • Dirty Cop:
    • "Crooked-Ass" Jojo. He routinely shakes down clockers, offers them protection, and even sells back confiscated drugs to them. Klein is aware of it and doesn't seem bothered by it at all, and in fact uses Jojo to put pressure on Strike.
    • Although he doesn't start off this way, Rocco Klein. A darker version of Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue. Although this was already building up. He showed no regard for evidence, much like Andy and was bent on investigating at any cost, similar to how Andy would do it. The main point, and the main difference between him and Andy, is when he tries to arrange Rodney into trying to hurt Strike in some sick attempt to get Strike to fess up, thinking he killed Darryl Adams which fails because he doesn't confess. Not even Andy ever turns evil.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Rodney Little is prone to this if you cross him, or he even thinks you crossed him.
  • The Dragon: Errol Barnes used to be the Big Bad until he contracted AIDS from a needle, leaving Rodney in charge. Even in his diminished state, he still strikes fear into everyone on the street, and anyone knows that if they cross Rodney they will get a visit from Errol.
    • Buddha Hat serves as one to Champ in the novel, although Champ seems to have several lesser Co-Dragons including Rodney and Darryl.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Victor Dunham spends his nights in the Cool Breeze lounge trying to relieve the pressures of his life.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: But not everyone. Victor is freed from prison and returns home to his family. Tyrone is cleared of killing Errol Barnes after being coached by Klein. While everyone else in the project is standing around watching the police clean up another murdered body, Tyrone is safe inside explaining to his mom how electric trains work. Strike left Tyrone his train set after being given a chance to get out of the projects to avoid retaliation from Rodney, who still has considerable power. Strike may never see his family again. The projects are still hell, bodies are dropping left and right, and nobody cares except maybe now for Detective Klein who can't really do anything to change things. In the final shot, Strike is riding in a real train (a lifelong dream) watching out the windows in wonder at the vast open space of the American west.
  • Flash Back: Used when Klein is interviewing Victor's bosses to find out what kind of worker he was. Both of Victor's bosses praise Victor for his dedication to the job, and both flashbacks show Victor dealing with potentially dangerous situations in the workplace politely and peacefully.
  • Friendly Enemy: Rodney and Detective Mazilli have known each other a long time and exchange friendly banter even as Rodney is arrested. Rodney doesn't seem to have the same respect for Klein.
  • Gangsta Style: The entire movie runs on this. It's all the clockers know and aspire to. Lampshaded in a sequence when Klein coaches a young boy during a police interview intercut with shots of gang-bangers pointing guns sideways at each other making "bang bang" noises.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Andre the Giant, the black housing cop who patrols the projects. He is always looking out for the kids in the neighborhood and is angry to see Strike turn into a clocker. When Strike leads Tyrone down the same path, Andre proves how not-nice he can be.
    • Not always. Andre is nice until Tyrone finds a guy from Strike. Then they become enemies.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: An inversion. Victor has confessed to the crime, but Klein doesn't think it adds up that he shot Darryl in self-defense, because Victor can't seem to get the details of the crime right.
    Victor: "I told you. This guy jumped out of nowhere and BAM! I shot him."
    Klein: "You mean bam, bam, bam, bam."
    Victor: "What?"
    Klein: "Four bullets in the body."
  • Inspector Javert: Rocco Klein, big time.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Rocco Klein. He's as cynical and outwardly uncaring as all the other cops in his squad, but is determined to find the truth behind the murder of Darryl Adams, and ultimately helps out a wrongly accused person get out of town. In the final scene, at yet another murder investigation, the cops are shown joking over another dead body, while Klein now looks genuinely weary from all the killing.
  • Mama Bear: Tyrone's mother Regina openly confronts the clockers when her son starts hanging out with them, fearlessly assaulting Strike in front of his crew.
    "Y'all are selling death to your own people!"
  • May–December Romance: Rocco's wife in the novel is much younger than him.
    • Strike in the novel also has an on-again-off-again relationship with a woman about a decade his senior.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The novel's setting of Dempsy, New Jersey (which recurs frequently in Price's work) is basically a fictionalization of Jersey City, New Jersey.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Rocco Klein, who the novel reveals is named David.
  • Pastimes Prove Personality: Strike doesn't play or care for sports, but instead is fascinated by trains, wearing Lionel T-shirts and keeping a functional antique model train set in his apartment. Lampshaded by Jojo who can't believe it when he hears it. "Come on, I bet you were dunking before you were walking!"
  • Pet the Dog: Klein, during his interrogation of Tyrone.
  • Pointof No Return: the ending. Strike is banished from the inner city by Andre. Rocco adds on to this, telling Strike that he'll arrest Strike and put him in a cell with Rodney. However, Strike gets his chance at a new life, but at that cost. He can never return to New York.
  • Police Brutality: The mostly white cops are very rough on the clockers. Andre, in a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, delivers a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown on Strike after Strike inadvertently leads Tyrone down the path of murder.
  • Police Procedural: Deconstructed. The cops are more interested in clearing cases than anything, and while on the job they drink and make many thoughtless and careless remarks as they stand over murdered corpses.
  • Reflective Eyes: While interrogating Victor, Klein leans in close to look at his eyes, saying "I want to see what you see." The camera focuses on Klein's reflection in Victor's tired, bloodshot eye, and when Klein dismisses his testimony as a lie, Victor slowly closes both eyes in resignation.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Throughout. One of Seal's songs, a pleasant song, plays in a grim scene where Rocco is interrogating Strike. In another country rock song, a warm song, plays when Errol brags about how evil he is. One of Seal's songs plays again, this time when Rocco and Larry arrest Rodney. Finally, Andre beating Strike at the end, and the ugliness that follows, with Rodney chasing Strike through town, happens to the song "Silent Hero" by Desiree.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Pretty much every cop and clocker in the movie. Averted with the Homicide Lieutenant, who objects to his subordinates using the term "Yo" for a young black man.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: All of the protagonists give these to Strike at some point in the movie.
  • Villainous Friendship: Rodney and Errol used to run in a gang together. Errol is now The Dragon to Rodney.