Review: 'Red Hook Summer' will feel pleasantly familiar to Spike Lee's fans
Even when I don't love a Spike Lee movie, I'm always happy to go see a new Spike Lee movie, and hope springs eternal.
I didn't make it to the premiere of "Red Hook Summer" at the Eccles, and when I saw some truly venomous reactions to the film appear on Twitter afterwards, I got worried. There are Lee films that I adore without reservation, like "Do The Right Thing" or "The 25th Hour" or "He Got Game," and there are Lee films where I enjoy them but recognize they're uneven like "Clockers" or "Bamboozled" or "Mo Better Blues." But there are also some Spike Lee movies that I think just plain don't work on any level, movies I don't think I'll ever see again like "Girl 6" or "She Hate Me" or even "Summer Of Sam." The last few years, since "Miracle At St. Anna," it's felt like Spike was in retreat to some degree, focusing on things like sports documentaries or the wildly entertaining PBS production of "Passing Strange." I walked into "Red Hook Summer" with no idea which Spike Lee I'd be seeing.
In the end, I like way more of "Red Hook Summer" than I don't like, and I think it's a film that could benefit enormously from a very slight edit on Lee's part. He's got a very good movie here, one that is a little shaggy and uneven in terms of structure, but one that clearly represents the voice that I like so much in his best work. This is not, as rumored at one point, a follow-up to "Do The Right Thing," but like that film, it serves as a snapshot of a particular neighborhood at a particular time, and there's a whole lot of heart and character on display.
The film tells the story of Flick, a boy in his early teens who is growing up in Atlanta, privileged and pampered. His mother decides to send him to spend the summer with a grandfather he's never met, Bishop Enoch Rouse, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Adjusting to life in the housing projects would be hard enough for Flick, but he hasn't been raised in the church at all, and Bishop Rouse is all about the church. He is determined to bring Flick to God over the course of the summer, and the film takes its time, introducing the various neighbors who surround them in the projects as well as the congregation of the tiny church where Rouse preaches every Sunday. It's a film that takes its time, and Lee isn't afraid to digress here. And while it is not a direct follow-up to "Do The Right Thing," fans of that film are in for a very special treat here, one that left me smiling ear to ear.
Much like last year's "Red State," this film spends way more time in church than is conventional in mainstream movies, but the difference here is that each time we go back into the Little Heaven church with Flick to watch his grandfather at work, the characters are actively growing and changing, and the scenes are as much about the notion of community and the way Bishop Rouse is desperate to connect to these people, desperate to share with them his idea of God. Religion is not just a choice to him, but rather the only way to make sense of a senseless world. The notion that Flick has grown up without faith doesn't just offend Bishop Rouse, it wounds him. He needs to reach the boy somehow, as much for his own soul as for Flick's.
You know you're in Spike Lee territory the moment you start to hear the character names. Flick Royale. Chazz Morningstar. Blessing Rowe. Born Knowledge. Box. These are characters drawn in the way that only Spike Lee does it, both broad and specific, heightened but true, and the film is absurdly colorful, painted in the bright primary colors that Lee so often favors. The script was co-written with James McBride, whose novel was the basis for "Miracle At St Anna's," and it's structured in such a way that when the film does finally turn over all of its cards, it's a little late, and it suddenly becomes a very different film than you think you're watching. I think the film does earn the ending, but I see why it threw some people the way it's laid out right now. Bishop Rouse has a reason that God is so important to him, a reason why he needs his faith, and there are plenty of hints along the way that something is wrong with his past. The big reveal raises some logic questions I can't answer, though, and I think it's hard for me to accept the actions of Flick's mother based on what we eventually learn. The adult cast fares better than the young cast overall. I think the young lead, Jules Brown, isn't really able to handle the role he's been given, but Clarke Peters of "The Wire" fame is sensational as his grandfather. Toni Lysaith, who plays Chazz, the girl who Flick falls for over the course of the summer, is a pleasure to watch, a radiant young presence who isn't technically very skilled, but whose outsized personality more than makes up for it.
Overall, there is real joy in the filmmaking here, and there is so much love for these characters. Time has not mellowed Spike Lee one little bit, but it has made more room in his heart, and I enjoyed just spending time with these characters. I enjoyed attending the services at Little Heaven. I liked the way the film captures a neighborhood dealing with gentrification and crime and basic philosophical questions about life on earth and beyond. It's a rich film, and for those of us who enjoy the work of Spike Lee, it is a worthy addition to his filmography, a mixed bag that offers many special pleasures, even if it is a little shaggy.
"Red Hook Summer" does not yet have distribution.