Media & Black Adolescents Series: A Look at the Tragic Mulatto in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

By Bryce Wyles

This blog post is the second in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 


  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this second of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “Crooklyn” a movie following the Carmichael family in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, and examines the tragic mulatto and reinforced internal racism.
Song straightens Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:13:11)

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • Why might “socially ascribed blackness” be more influential in socializing Black children than their own perception of race? Does that perception even take root before socialization begins?
  • Viola does not visit Brooklyn, though she wants to. How might her perception of “Crooklyn” differ or align with Troy’s view of Song’s home?


Chasing her children out of bed at 4 AM, scolding them for failing to clean the kitchen as she had asked, Carolyn Carmichael exclaims, “This ain’t no plantation. I’m not a slave…and I certainly am not a play thing!” (Lee, 1994, 12:50). The Carmichael family—Carolyn, Woody, and their five children—is the heart of Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Crooklyn. Occurring in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, Crooklyn sees the Carmichaels, alongside their friends and relatives, navigating the quarrelsome, blurred difficulties of the personal and the political:

  • The personal: raising five children on a low income; feuding with neighbors, drug addicts, school bullies; interacting with aunts and uncles that either nurture or lay judgement. 
  • The political: piecing through the social connotations of welfare and food stamps; opposing and affirming the politics of gender and sex roles; witnessing casual racism in Brooklyn and suggesting institutional racism at large. 

In what may seem a lighthearted digression in Lee’s career, the iconic director uses the Carmichaels to dissect life in America—the ups, downs, lefts, and rights—for a struggling Black family.

Lee’s film walks both a comedic and serious line. Themes of racism and poverty are striking, yet you can’t help but burst out laughing when Aunt Song’s poor dead dog flies out of a foldout futon. That scene truthfully captures the entirety of the film: it’s dark, undoubtedly, at times, but somehow it keeps Lee’s satirical charm. Crooklyn’s characters—most of them, at least—are loveable, funny, and relatable. Recalling Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, it’s clear that his filmmaking is distinct, and iconic, in its blend of humor and commentary.

The Tragic Mulatto

One of Lee’s most telling portrayals in the film is that of Aunt Song, whom Troy, the Carmichaels’ daughter, goes to stay with at one point in the film. Song immediately juxtaposes the Carmichael family—her affluent lifestyle contrasts the Carmichaels’ small apartment and low income. Her first remark to Troy, though, suggests a juxtaposition beyond just affluence; seeing Troy’s hair, Song belittlingly asks, “All those little tiny braids and things, what y’all call that?” “Braids,” Carolyn responds, with a painted smile, aware of Song’s distaste for Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:07:44). 

Other scenes at Song’s household include an array of White dolls adorning Song’s adopted daughter’s dresser. We see Song take out Troy’s braided hair in favor of straightened locks, in one scene commenting, “Don’t tell me you got the nerve to be tender-headed with these naps” (Lee, 1994, 1:12:59). Whether knowingly or not, Song has delineated Whiteness as an ideal, through the dolls she buys her daughter Viola and her insistence that straightened, flowing hair garner praise over braids and beads. Song could be said to have already answered the question as to whether “she should accept her socially ascribed blackness or reject it in favor of a more privileged whiteness” (Jackson, 2006, p. 33). This dilemma is one Jackson (2006) ascribes to the Black character archetype of the tragic mulatto. Jackson (2006) identifies the tragic mulatto as a Black woman who enters an identity crisis as she grapples with her morals in association with her race, often light-skinned enough to pass as White (p. 33-4).

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.

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Author Bio: Bryce Wyles is a second-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in English and Media Studies. He enjoys viewing and analyzing media ranging from Netflix shows to classic literature to press publications. Originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, he currently lives in Charlottesville, where he also writes for the student-run newspaper The Cavalier Daily.

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