Red Hook Summer
Directed By: Spike Lee
Written By: Spike Lee and James McBride
Starring: Jules Brown, Clarke Peters, Toni Lysaith, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Heather Alicia Simms, and Spike Lee.
Director of Photography: Kerwin DeVonish, Editor: Hye Mee Na, Production Designer: Sarah Frank, Original Music: Bruce Hornsby
“Spike Lee is a white elephant artist whose best work is termitic,” said my cinephile friend Trevor Link recently on Twitter. And what better way to capture an artist who takes on grand ideas (blackness, poverty, drugs, Huricane Katrina, 9/11, and beyond), but often fills his films with humor, delight, and a true slice of life sensibility. However, Lee hasn’t made a theatrical feature since 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a big budget WWII film about black soldiers that lacked any of Lee’s flair that made him such an impressionistic filmmaker early in his career. Thus it’s hard not to see the character of Flik (Jules Brown), the young protagonist of his latest film Red Hook Summer, coming back to Brooklyn as a metaphor for Lee himself, searching for his own roots that defined him as America’s great black filmmaker (at one point, a character trying to fix Flik's hair notes his deep roots, perhaps the film's most meta-commentary moment).
Shot on digital, Super 8, and an iPad 2 in only 18 days, Red Hook Summer is a major triumph by Lee, an improvisational and meandering film that turns intensely on the themes of religion in the black community. Red Hook Summer is messy—perhaps one of Lee’s most winding and oblique features that seems to lack any true narrative until its jaw-dropping, final third act—but Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever were similarly twisting, and Red Hook Summer sees Lee attempting to regain some of that magic.
Most of the magic comes in the form of Clarke Peters as Bishop Enoch Rouse, the grandfather of Flik who is put in charge of the wily young boy from Atlanta. Enoch is truly a God-loving man if there ever was one. He constantly fights against Flik on his atheist background (as well as his vegan ways), convincing the child that if he wants to enjoy his summer in Red Hook, he will first need to love Jesus. Flik has no intention of doing so, spending time on his iPad, sneaking potato chips from the Sunday School supplies, and hanging with an outgoing and sassy girl his age named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). Their scenes have a meet-cute style to them (though they’d be a little more fun if Brown and Lysaith had smarter impulses as actors), which gives the film its loosest, most freeing energy.
The majority of Red Hook Summer centers around the relationship between Flik and Enoch, as the two attempt to understand each other, though there are a number of characters that come in and spout their own life philosophies. We see the drunken Deacon, the wannabe violent rapper, and various churchgoers, (plus a brief cameo by Do the Right Thing protagonist Mookie, again played by Lee, and two characters from 25th Hour show up as well), all who have a different relationship to the poverty around them. There are plenty of political agendas—Lee is certainly interested in the black response to Obama, the financial recession, and the gentrification of Brooklyn. However, I don’t think these “talking points” represent Lee’s own views as much as he is attempting to express that of a community. Lee’s camera is often more reserved than usual—he’s capturing, not professing.
The crux of the film though comes through three intense sermons given by Enoch, which capture this disheartening spirit. Peters goes big and never stops, and as the parishioners of Lil' Peace of Heaven Baptist Church clap at every phrase, you feel the need to as well. Peters may be best known for his role as the quiet, reserved Detective Freamon on The Wire, and here he plays a whole different monster. But even past his loud, commanding voice are his soulful eyes, and during the film’s late confession, it’s his eyes that continue to resonate.
That whole last act might feel like a different film, as a late twist leads the film into a Christ-like punishment (a late sequence in which Enoch slowly walks from his church to his small apartment, set to a gospel song called “Jesus is the Lover of My Soul,” only lacks him carrying a cross to signify his role here). But Red Hook Summer is essentially a conversion narrative with the last act switched out. Flik and Enoch comes closer to understanding each other, and you feel Flik might finally accept Christ, and then Lee slams you from the side in his most stylized sequence, employing the film’s only use of his favorite “dolly” shot. Like in Do The Right Thing, much of Red Hook Summer before that feels casual, almost improvisational in its very loose filmmaking (the camera floats around characters like a free spirit) and its lack of any conventional narrative, but it all employs into this final act as the film reveals the disturbing truth about faith and its power to both save and corrupt.
Red Hook Summer departs on an ambiguous note, but a hopeful one, as two characters exchange symbolic gifts of what they’ve experienced over the hot season. And then Lee reaches the transcendent, opting to recap the film through Super-8 cameras capturing the spirit of the neighborhood the director used to live in. Lee doesn’t know what to make of his characters and the crimes they have committed, but like in Do the Right Thing, he isn’t there to pass judgment, especially on a location that means so much to him. His subjects may be white elephants, but he prefers acting like a termite.