Spike Lee was once known as an important filmmaker, a chronicler of the American experience, and the first black director to achieve critical and commercial success.
By Noah Gittell
Spike Lee was once known as an important filmmaker, a chronicler of the American experience, and the first black director to achieve critical and commercial success. After a decade of generic but entertaining commercial fare, like “Inside Man”, and important but little-seen TV documentaries, like “When the Levees Broke,” Lee is back to his old self. He’s also back in Brooklyn, and in the sweltering summer heat, the same setting as his breakout film, “Do the Right Thing,” to which “Red Hook Summer” acts as a kind of companion film. While it lacks that film’s youthful vigor, it does what we used to expect a Spike Lee movie to do and what he has not done in many years – share with style and complexity the experiences of a certain segment of the black American community.
“Red Hook Summer” is the liveliest and most vital film Lee has made in a long time. It’s also the portrait of a place — Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Flik Royale (Jules Brown), a 12-year-old private school boy from Atlanta, is spending the summer in Red Hook with his estranged grandfather, Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). Rouse is a Baptist bishop at the rundown neighborhood church, where Flik is disappointed to learn he will be spending the summer working for free. His prospects brighten when he meets Chazz (Toni Laisath), who acts as his ambassador to Red Hook. Sadly, when Enoch is around his grandfather, he spends his days sulking, despite Enoch’s best efforts to impart wisdom and teach him about faith, a virtue he has not learned from his widowed mother.
There are two competing plots in “Red Hook Summer” – Flik’s summer of maturation and Enoch’s efforts to save the church, which is deep in debt. Only the second storyline really comes into focus. As for Flik, he learns a few none-too-profound lessons, such as the value of compromise and that people are not always what they seem, but these lessons are never really earned.
Flik is not a well-rounded character, just a surrogate for us to observe and learn about Red Hook. Through his eyes, we see all that Red Hook has to offer, its sense of community and its danger, its beauty and its flaws.
Despite the film’s failure to connect us to Flik’s journey, the characters that Lee sketches are so vivid and his visual style so assured that “Red Hook Summer”, while not always involving, is never uninteresting.
As usual, Lee has real issues on his mind, too. In Red Hook, he shows a black America that has not changed much since Obama took office, despite promises to the contrary. Poverty is rampant in the inner city, and gentrification continues to cause strife, both economic and cultural. While the characters cling to religion, the film’s central tenet is that those selling faith as a perfect solution in an imperfect world have another thing coming.
All in all, it is a welcome, if somewhat rusty, return for Lee, who uses a lot of his old tricks but with a new twist. His signature visual flourish, for example, is having his characters speak directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. With Flik continually recording the community on his iPad, “Red Hook Summer” is a diegetic construct. We get the feeling that Lee sees a lot of himself in Flik. As a chronicler of the urban black experience, Lee must be both inside and outside of it at once, and Flik, the private-school adolescent who filters the world through his iPad, reflects this dichotomy.
But it is the Bishop Rouse who holds the story together. Even when the film is not firing on all cylinders, our attention is drawn to the charismatic, complex, tortured man at its center. Lee directs Clarke Peters to a virtuoso performance. His Enoch is an anachronism — an old-time preacher in a world full of iPads and vegan grandchildren who is still selling pure virtue in a world that does not believe such a thing exists anymore.