One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is the night in 1994 when I first saw Spike Lee’s Crooklyn with my family at the drive-in theater near our house. I watched my parents search for the radio station playing the movie audio as my older sister and I sat in the backseat cuddled up with blankets and pillows.
That night I met Troy Carmichael, a rough and tumble nine-year-old tomboy who could both jump double dutch and outrun the boys on the block, who rocked beautiful braids and beads in her hair and who refused to take mess from anyone on her block or in her brownstone. On the screen, I saw a little Black girl that reminded me so much of myself — either that, or I decided in that moment that I wanted to be just like her.
Spike Lee’s film, which premiered 25 years ago this week, chronicles the bittersweet story of a Black family and their Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1970s. The movie is a nostalgic masterpiece revisiting the music and style of that era, with a soundtrack that featured artists from Bill Withers to The Delfonics, and colorful costumes compliments of Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
The story is told through the eyes of the sole girl in a crowded house of rambunctious boys. I watched as Troy, played by Zelda Harris, both took in the world around her and took her place in it — from stuffing tissue in her bra as her little brother bangs on the bathroom door, to stealing her oldest brother’s prized Buffalo nickels to buy ice cream after he smashes her first cone in her face. At a time when Black femme protagonists were rare, Troy’s coming of age story made young, Black girls feel seen and laid the foundation for future characters like her (I strongly believe Marsai Martin’s character Diane on Black-ish couldn’t exist without Troy).
Although Lee, who won his first Oscar this year, was the director who brought her tale to the big screen, Black women — both on and off the screen — are largely responsible for bringing Troy’s story to life.
The screenplay for Crooklyn, originally entitled Hot Peas and Butter — the name of a street game the kids used to play — was the first ever written by Spike’s sister Joie Lee. The story was based on her memories of life as a young girl.
“Crooklyn is my story,” Joie said. “It’s a family effort, but the idea was not a collective thing. It’s a script that I gave birth to, which is why it’s Troy’s story.”
Joie said she wanted to celebrate memories of her and her brothers as “street kids” in Brooklyn, and honor their mother who died when she was 14 years old. She explained how her brother Cinqué encouraged her to continue to write the script. He eventually showed it to their older brother Spike, who decided he wanted it to be his next film. Joie sold her script to her brother (for an amount she’d rather not disclose), but she fought to maintain her credit for writing the screenplay.
“What was most important for me was that I received my ‘story by’ credit,” she said. “Sometimes certain things are more important than the money. The money means nothing to me now. The fact that I have ‘original story by’ credit means everything, because people don’t even think I wrote the film. Business is business even with family, and that was a hard fight.”
Although she respected her brother’s creative ability, she said she immediately had second thoughts about not directing the film herself, out of fear the integrity of the story would be lost. But she went on to play a large role behind the scenes (she also played the role of Troy’s Aunt Maxine onscreen). Spike consulted her on what the set should look like, including the family’s house, where she stressed there were no doors — hence Troy’s desperate need for privacy. She also coached the child actors, spending the most time with Zelda Harris who played her fictional doppelganger.
Finding the right young actress to play Troy was an extensive search. But Joie said she and her brothers knew Harris was the one as soon as they saw her.
“She wasn’t actor-y. She was natural, she was organic, she was real,” Joie said. “She was eight years old, but had a certain type of wisdom. She just had that it factor. I was blown away by this little girl.”
Harris, who now lives in Los Angeles and sings lead in her band Zelda & the Lo Los, recalls coming in for several auditions, including one where she had a fever over 100 degrees. She eventually got the role and spent her summer learning from veteran actors like Delroy Lindo, Alfre Woodard and Joie herself.
“Joie was like your older sister’s coolest friend,” Harris said. “When I met her I was so taken aback by her beauty and her whole aura. But as we dug deeper into the work of acting, I saw her more as a coach. Like someone who trains an individual for a boxing match or the Olympics. Like she’s gonna chisel me. I’m the slab of marble that is to become Troy, and she’s showing me the steps I need to take in order to go there.”
Joie taught Harris, who was the oldest of three girls, what it was like being the only girl in a house full of brothers.
“She would give me these little pointers like just the way I walked down the street. She would say, ‘When you’re hanging out with boys, you have to make sure your walk lets them know who’s in charge. When you walk, you’re sending a message to the other boys like I can play. I can hang with you. I can do whatever.’”
On screen, Lee’s coaching translated seamlessly. Harris’ performance of Troy is incredibly authentic and her brothers take no mercy on her, something Alfre Woodard also found impressive.
“She took on a huge role and was the leader of all that testosterone,” Woodard said.
The actress joined the cast after Spike left a challenging message on her answering machine saying she was scared to come to Brooklyn to be in his film. She took on the role of Carolyn, the matriarch of the Carmichael clan, which extended off screen.
“I let Zelda be feistier than the other kids,” Woodard said. “I would kinda pull the reins of the boys quicker and tighter. But I didn’t pull her reins because I don’t believe in putting out the fire of a young girl. I don’t believe in trying to get a girl to temper her fire. So I wanted her, especially around all those boys, to make sure she could fire back at them. And it was for Zelda, but it was also for me.”
For Harris, so much of that summer in 1993 was spent bonding with her onscreen brothers, and learning how to play double dutch and stratomatic baseball — all of which resulted in a truly authentic portrayal of youth during that period. She also credits Woodard and Joie for not only helping shape her impressive portrayal of Troy, but also for their mentorship.
“If every Black girl could spend their summer gleaning insights from Joie Lee and Alfre Woodard everything would be different,” she said.
At the time of its release, Crooklyn received praise for its universal portrayal of a middle-class family everyone could relate to (it also received criticism for stylistic choices, like the anamorphic lens Spike uses to portray Troy’s visit to see her relatives down south). A quarter century later, the film stands strong as a cinematic feat on the director’s extensive resume.
“To my knowledge, we hadn’t seen a Black family that was just presented as we are in life, as human beings,” Woodard said. “I get told in Belgium by white Belgians ‘I love Crooklyn, it reminds me of growing up.’ Which is what happens when you tell a story from a specific point of view, you don’t have to mention race. You didn’t get up this morning like ‘I’m a black woman that wants a cup of coffee.’ You just want a cup of coffee. It was us as we are. Just us being fabulous, complex, funny, delightful, and making ends meet. And seeing, even within that story, that we’re not monolithic.”
Although the film didn’t shove race in viewers’ faces, it didn’t shy away from it. Troy’s conversations about good and bad hair, both on the stoop with her girlfriends in Brooklyn and while her aunt takes a hot comb to her curls in the South, are quintessential reflections of a young Black girl’s experience.
“The specificity is what makes it universal,” Woodard said. “Diversity is not the point; showing reality is the point.”
For Harris, playing Troy gave her a freedom she hadn’t experienced in other roles.
“It was liberating because I didn’t have to sterilize myself as an actor in order to portray that role,” she said. “Other Black girls I would see on auditions, their hair was pressed with lots of curls, almost like more of a pageant look. You speak in more of a sing-songy tone. And I knew, that’s not me, that’s not how the kids I know talk. But I knew this is what the grownups are looking for, so that’s what I’m gonna go for.
This is a human girl who’s out there living her life. And she looks like me. And her family looks like me. And her mom and dad look like my mom and dad. And she lives in a neighborhood with people like the people in my neighborhood.”
The film’s enduring power lies in Spike’s ability to capture the heart of what love and loss looks like for the Carmichael family, and by extension, any family. For me, putting a Black girl at the center of a story anyone in the world could relate to only solidifies the film’s legacy.
But for Joie Lee, who was simply writing a story about herself and her family, race was never a question.
“I don’t think of Crooklyn as cerebral, I think of it as celebratory,” she said. “Crooklyn is a film about memory.”