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Real life from the Hollywood dream factory


IF YOU WANT to see some intelligent discussion of violence in the cities these days, you must go, of course, to a movie.

What'd you think -- C-Span?

You watch C-Span if you're into, say, speeches by old white guys about hip hop music, which they wouldn't know from the Lindy hop.

You go to the movies if you want popcorn, a drink, Junior Mints and cold, hard reality. Yeah, reality -- courtesy of Hollywood, the dream factory, home to Sly Stallone and Ah-nuld, and also Bob Dole's old stomping grounds. Ain't life weird?

Spike Lee's "Clockers" is the latest not quite docu-drama from Hollywood about the dual tragedy of drugs and death from what we used to call the ghetto and now call the inner city, where the poor -- or what we now call the underclass -- reside.

The movie explores the usual topics, like life and death, especially violence-filled life and terrible, untimely death.

But Lee wants something deeper than that.

Lee, who sees his career as an exploration of the black condition, abhors blacksploitation movies. From a director who thinks there are too many movies about too much black violence, Lee claims to have made "the 'hood movie to end all 'hood movies." He believes, even now, in the power of art.

And yet, there will be other 'hood movies. There just won't be many as powerful.

Lee takes us into the projects, offers up a slice of that life, and shows -- not tells -- why the slice is so deep and why the easy answers we're hearing about how to clean up the problems of the cities are way too easy.

In the movie's opening sequence, we visit a series of death scenes in which young black men are oozing blood on sidewalks whose boundaries are created by the yellow tape that reads: police line, do not cross.

You know what we're on to. It's familiar territory, certainly. And then you meet Strike, our protagonist, and the stereotypes all slip away.

Strike is a guy you should hate. He's a low-level clocker, a round-the-clock drug dealer, who deals the poison that kills his own people and anyone else who wants to get high. Lee, who co-wrote the script with Richard Price, who wrote the novel, makes Strike not always likable, but always human.

Once you know Strike, you know how trapped he is by the life he's made for himself. Strike isn't macho. Ice Cube's not going to play him in any movie. In fact, in the book, he stutters. He drinks Yoo Hoo and he's got an ulcer and life, at every turn, seems much too hard for him. He doesn't believe death is inevitable. He's scared.

He's run by a black drug dealer who may want to kill him. There's a black cop who may want to kill him. To Lee's credit, he doesn't make the argument that the white man is dumping crack a vulnerable black population. Black people are dumping crack on a vulnerable population with full knowledge of what they're doing.

Eventually, though, Strike discovers his conscience, or maybe it's just a bad stomach. Or maybe it's the 12-year-old who wants to be just like him. Or his brother -- the "good" black man who has a wife, kid and two jobs -- who confesses to a murder that the cops think Strike may have committed.

Meanwhile in Congress, if you watch C-span or read a paper, you know that the old white men who have never been inside a project are dealing with future Strikes by voting to "end welfare as we know it," as if welfare -- this is the new revisionism -- causes poverty and violence. As if there weren't poverty before welfare.

After the recent Senate vote, which will certainly, at least in the short run, put more poor kids out in the street, there was wild celebration. The celebration was unseemly. It was sad.

It was almost as sad as the Lee movie. Strike is the heart of the movie, and it is his relationship with young Tyrone that breaks your heart. Tyrone, a bright kid whose mother does all she can to protect him from his neighborhood, wants the Sega set that Strike gives him. He wants the cool haircut, the cool gun, the attitude that seems, to a 12-year-old, something like power.

The funny thing about violence on TV is that the worst violence is not when Wily E. Coyote gets blown up. For some children -- the have-nots, the poor -- the violence comes from the commercials that tell you what other kids have and what you don't have and what you need to find a way to get.

The message in "Clockers" is the absence of hope, the absence of the American dream, the absence of a way out. If you really think block grants are the answer, you ought to get out more often. Maybe even take in a flick.

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