Sunday, August 12, 2012


Red Hook Summer is another 'fish out of water' story, or, maybe, arguably, a 'fish back in the water he never really knew he had' story too. Young Silas, aka Flik (Jules Brown) is dropped off by his mother to stay the summer with his grandfather, Bishop Enouch (Clark Peters), whom he's never met. He's from a sheltered life in Atlanta where he's in private school, has an I-pad 2 (gotta remember it's a version 2), and is an atheist mostly since he wasn't raised in any particular church. The Bishop won't have that: this summer he'll be a-Jesus learning, damn it! He is taken to church every time the Bishop gives one of his fiery (and shamelessly entertaining) sermons, but the boy still hates it. Even with some not-too-bad playtime with a local girl, Chazz (Tony Lysaith), who has the energy and spunk and attitude of... well, maybe two Brooklyn girls, he still can't stand it. But over the summer, he starts to warm up a little to the Bishop. Until...

 And I'll leave the plot sermonizing there. This is Spike Lee returning to New York city, more specifically to Brooklyn, and he makes it as if the older (maybe just about the same as when he was young wise?) Lee has some more words to say in the 'universe' of the Brooklyn of She's Gotta Have It - where Nola Darling is now Mother Darling, a devout member of the church - and Do the Right Thing - where Mookie is now Mr. Mookie, still delivering pizzas for Sal's so that he's "Gotta get paid". Why he's delivering pizzas for Sal's  doesn't matter (I guess, check out a Q&A to get a hilarious explanation for that, but I digress); what matters  for Lee is that now there's another dimension which is the spiritual, and that a human being doesn't  necessarily have to believe in God to find some kind of spirit that has been not really around him before. Yes, even if it's a thirteen year old who is already still dealing with the passing of his father in Afghanistan.

Lee's aims here are actually not that ambitious, at least not as ambitious as he's gotten or tried to be with his BIG movies or MESSAGE movies where unfortunately he's fallen on his face (I'm thinking Bamboozled, She Hate Me and Miracle at St. Anna). Red Hook Summer could be considered 'minor' in his body of work, but within the dimensions he sets up for himself he manages to pull off something he hasn't done in a while, at least by a script he originally wrote himself (co-written with James McBride): it's by turns fearless and funny. How's it fearless? Lee takes the story into what we expect will be a usual route - boy plopped in new surroundings, boy grows a bit, boy sees some things differently - and then the rug is pulled out from under him and everyone else. How is it funny? In the way the previous Brooklyn films were funny, with some bizarre-but-light characters (the drunk here is like a cousin of Ossie Davis' Da Mayor), and the natural dialog which Lee mostly still has an ear for from the streets he came from.

 I should note Clark Peters before I go on. He's absolutely unstoppable here with how powerful he is. What Lee does for Peters is give him a character to have depth and dimension, and pathos, so that even when he's at first and later presented in the In-His-Ways Bible-Man that he is to his grandson, Peters conviction in the part takes it a long way. In an odd way it's like Michael Parks in Red State, only here it's with less of the overt evil. The Bishop is a good man, or at least tries to be in the face of the tough times in Red Hook, and when he hits the pulpit it's much easier to get the crowd going than it is to reach out to stubborn Silas/Flik, who can't stop looking "through his box" as he calls the I-pad 2. Indeed Peters is so good that when Lee goes for some stylistic flourishes (some intended, and some, like the crosses appearing in his eyes in a startling close-up in one shot, not), Peters' face and cinematic charisma makes it go even further, to the point where by the time a major conflict arises in the third act, the audience has to contend with looking at him and everything else with another point of view. This leads up to a four or five minute tracking shot that is among the best Lee's done in his career (you'll know it when you see it, simple but true in its

But Red Hook Summer is far from great.  Oh, no no it is not that. It's been getting some bad press, and I can see why, though I'm not sure if all would agree with me on the points. The first problem Lee has here is that he cast two unknown people, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, in roles that require a lot of them as children. Unlike in Crooklyn, where Lee was able to get some strong, naturalistic acting from his kids, here the non-professionals (plucked, as Lee said at a Q&A, from a local middle school) are either flat in their delivery, and usually with dialog that is either just decent or stilted, or just bad. Like, Is-This-By-a-Professional-Filmmaker bad; mostly it's that when Lee has to give them dramatic stuff to do - when the kids have to act like kids, it's not too bad when they have to hit their one notes - that it is just embarrassing to watch.

The other problem is music, which is more of a mixed bag: some of the music, like the original compositions by Bruce Hornsby, are memorably engaging and a couple of times (i.e. the tracking shot I mentioned earlier) music is used to incredibly moving use in the context of the scene... other times, it felt like Lee just put music to a scene that either didn't need it, or mucked around with a dramatic tone he was going for in the dialog and performances. As much as Lee is driven by music, sometimes enough is enough with it! 

While I don't think Red Hook Summer is THE Return of Spike Lee as has been potentially proclaimed in advance by just the nature of the location and its independent street-cred (like She's Gotta Have it it was  shot in a little over a dozen days for way under a million dollars), it's not at all a failure either. It's shot with vitality in the digital camerawork, the characters and themes have poignancy, and the points that Lee puts in for people to say as perhaps his mouth-piece on some recent issues (racism, gentrification, faith) feel more natural than I would've expected. It's still Spike Lee so it's Loud and Proud and is not really subtle. But then, if it's still got energy and a funk to it, maybe not-really-subtle isn't too bad.

(PS: In case you're wondering, the appearances of Mookie and Nola "Mother" Darling are just cameos, and Lee almost looks like he wandered into the shot as opposed to naturally being 'Mookie' again.  Please baby please baby baby baby please do some more acting in your films though, Lee, you're pretty good at it!)

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