Movie Review: Red Hook Summer
The Charlotte Observer
To this we’ve come: Spike Lee, the most significant black director of the last 50 years, is reduced to releasing his latest project through tiny Variance Films in the deadest week of the summer.
I can see why. He wrote, directed and co-produced “Red Hook Summer” as a mix of domestic drama, moralistic after-school special, gritty look at the dangerous streets of the Brooklyn projects and powerful message about redemption and forgiveness. (Big distributors never want to market anything like that.)
The older leading man has charisma and depth; his young co-star barely shifts his features into a smile or a frown. The cinematography by Kerwin DeVonish veers from naturalism to impressionistic experimentation. But just as I was prepared to write this off as a well-intentioned mixed bag with worthwhile elements, it kicked me in the guts with less than 30 minutes to go. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.
Lee doesn’t go in much for exposition. Thirteen-year-old Flik (Jules Brown) comes from a well-off Atlanta family and gets dropped by his mother on his grandfather’s doorstep. We don’t learn until much later why Flik has never seen his grandfather before, or why his mom refuses to enter the old man’s apartment. (And when we do learn, it seems unlikely she’d leave Flik there for the summer.)
Aging Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) runs Red Hook’s Lil Peace of Heaven Baptist Church. Through him, Flik meets members of the neighborhood: thuggish, would-be rapper Box (Nate Parker); alcoholic Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd); devout Sharon Morningstar (Heather Simms), who wants to marry Enoch; and her mischievous, questioning daughter, Chazz (Toni Lysaith, who has a lot more energy than fellow first-timer Brown).
At times, the movie plays out like a retrospective of Lee’s other films. Tracy Camilla Johns (“She’s Gotta Have It”), now a worshipper in her 50s, still lives in the neighborhood. Lee has a grey-bearded cameo as Mookie, still delivering pizzas 23 years after “Do the Right Thing” (and still wearing the same misspelled shirt touting “Sal’s Famous Pizzaria.”)
“Red Hook Summer” echoes “Crooklyn” in its boy’s-eye view of urban life, “Jungle Fever” in its Bible-quoting patriarch – though the character is much more human here – and especially “Do the Right Thing,” though the social tensions spring less from racism than the economic squeeze brought on by gentrification.
But this is a film more about internal pressures than external ones. Bishop Enoch is loving and harsh, rigid and flexible by turns; he longs to communicate with Flik, who hides behind an iPad, but is impeded by judgmentalism, religious blinders and family history. Peters gives a terrific performance; we like him and don’t like him from moment to moment, until we see him fully revealed by the end. (And even then, reactions to his character will differ.)
Lee has often had a tendency to pound the pulpit as a filmmaker: Like old-fashioned ministers, he liked to tell us what he was going to say, say it, then tell us what he’d just said. At 55, he seems to realize that. So he wrote a line for Chazz to speak about an inspirational relative: “She used to teach, not preach.”
When Lee preaches in “Red Hook Summer,” the movie bumps along, though it’s reasonably entertaining. But when he decides to teach us about the human heart, it becomes a potent experience.