I left Spike Lee's "Clockers" thinking every child 12 years old and up should see it. They should see it to get a glimpse of how they will look when they are dead.
Mr. Lee, after years of being criticized by many reviewers for not having enough about drugs in his cinematic versions of African-Americans, makes a two-bit seller, or "clocker" the central character. He opens the movie with close-up photos taken by police of blown away men and women, presumably killed in drug-related disputes.
What is most important about "Clockers" is that Mr. Lee's central character, Strike, is a teen-ager clearly out of control, but also one who is clearly scared to death of the fast lane. Mr. Lee shows how three generations of low-level drug sellers in a Brooklyn public housing high-rise influence each other. Strike is a favorite of the corner kingpin, Rodney. In turn, Strike and his money influences a boy, 12-year-old Tyrone, to get in the lane.
Strike is despicable enough, particularly over the influencing of Tyrone, to evoke no sympathy when an African-American
housing cop, who has tried to convince Strike and Tyrone to stay straight, beats up Strike in broad daylight.
Strike is nothing more than a child. He holes up in his apartment in his free time playing with his elaborate model train set and watching videos of the great old locomotives. When the cop who tries to keep him straight asks Strike if he has ever been on a real train, all Strike can say is a longing "no."
As predatory as Strike can be, selling poison to other young people, he remains a human being with the possibility of redemption.
"All those gangsta movies always end with the young black kid dead or bleeding to death," Mr. Lee said in one publicity interview for "Clockers." "It's the message, 'Well, I guess I'll die here in the ghetto. . . . This is our lot in life. There is no way out.' "
Much of "Clockers" is about Strike trying to find his way out before he is taken out permanently by Rodney, or taken in by Rocco, a hard-faced detective who is convinced Strike killed a man Rodney put out a hit on. Strike's brother, a hard-working family man, confessed to the killing. Rocco thinks the brother is covering up for Strike.
As with all Mr. Lee's movies, some critics cheer his realism, while others say he does not make his streets mean enough or dirty enough. Some deride his "brownstone pastorale" as being "idealized and relentlessly sentimental."
We could use a little sentimentality. There are quite enough movies that stereotype African-American "gangstas" as hopeless felons from hopeless neighborhoods who deserve nothing more than a casket.
"Clockers" delivers the possibility that a Strike can get off the caboose of the drug train. The odd thing is, when Mr. Lee had angry blacks firebomb Sal's Pizzeria in "Do The Right Thing," critics demanded that he come up with solutions for racism. No review of "Clockers" calls for solutions on how to stop drugs from flooding the ghetto in the first place.
Young people need to see the movie to understand that once you get on the train, few people care whether you get off or end up as another bloodied photo taken by the police.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.