The first sign of trouble in "Red Hook Summer" is a reminder of a much better Spike Lee joint set in the same neighborhood over 20 years ago. While sheltered Atlanta teen Flik (Jules Taylor Brown) gets a tour of the Red Hook projects from his stern grandfather (Clark Peters), none of other Lee himself slinks by as Mookie, the disgruntled pizza delivery man from 1989's "Do the Right Thing." Lee's latest project suffers terribly from comparison.
While it's nice to see the filmmaker in front of the camera after all these years playing his most famous character — wearing the same outfit and hustling to his next delivery — "Do the Right Thing" fans will quickly realize it makes no sense, or at least demands further explanation: How is Mookie still on the job if he helped burn Sal's Famous Pizzeria to the ground years ago?
Lee made "Red Hook Summer" out of his own pocket the way he wanted it. That lack of a filter helps make the noticeably low-budget effort into an earnest, occasionally powerful work, but also one routinely afflicted by sloppiness. Lee's unwillingness to compromise hurts the movie as much as it helps it, providing a continuing reminder of the better efforts that came before.
All rants aside, "Red Hook Summer" is ideologically sound. Flik's eye-opening experience over the course of the summer he spends with his grandfather leads to a vivid narrative about the frustrations of life in the projects and how the migration of black communities to the south has impacted earlier generations' connections to their roots. The passion behind that setting gives "Red Hook Summer" a continuing sense of purpose, but one that's repeatedly held down by amateur production values and gaping plot holes. Each flaw stands out like a jagged edge; collectively, they accumulate into an assemblage of rough ideas for better Spike Lee movies that, like his career, maintain terrific potential in theory while falling into a hit-or-miss rhythm throughout the lively execution.
"How come you talk white?" asks Chazz (Toni Lysaith), the neighborhood girl Flik quickly befriends. As an iPad-wielding elitist who's been dropped off by his mother to hang out in the neighborhood for a few months, Flik's entire being answers that question. Hanging out in the Red Hook projects provides his wake-up call to a heated world filled with immediate concerns regularly voiced by his grandfather in the majestic sermons that provide the movie with its minimal high points. In the church, Lee's steady camera captures Peters' fiery sermons with a clarity that the rest of the story sorely lacks for a number reasons, a lackadaisical screenplay chief among them.
Lee co-wrote "Red Hook Summer" with James McBride, with whom the director previously collaborator on his last narrative, the WWII misfire "Miracle at St. Anna." It's possible that Lee needs a new collaborator with the capacity to organize his intentions and place a heavier focus on character development. The new movie's ensemble cast contains a handful of half-developed characters with little function outside of influencing key moments of the plot, from Flik's doting mother to the drug dealers–seemingly lifted out of Lee's obsession with "The Wire"–routinely threatening the upright Christian community that Flik's grandfather fights to sustain.
Littered with bursts of confusion and anger, "Red Hook Summer" continually falls prey to histrionics that turn it into something Lee most certainly did not want–a cheap imitation of Tyler Perry theatrics, where one-dimensional characterizations and slovenly dramatic turns take the place of emotional credibility.
While the drama springs to life during moments of extreme melodrama, anything cogent about Flik's journey is undone by a cheap plot twist that negates Lee's evident sincerity. When a dark secret from the preacher's past comes back to haunt him, "Red Hook Summer" suddenly loses its grip on the material and becomes a crass, sensationalistic take on the movie that Lee wants to make. The director believes too much in the potency of the material to rein it in, resulting in an annoying reductiveness (particularly an overabundance of "piano speeches," as one colleague put it; poor Flik can't get a break).
There's an argument one could make for Lee's scattershot approach. What it lacks in consistency, it keeps in check with furious pathos about the struggle to overcome lower-class roots. Stylized moments create an erratic structure to the experience that may bear the influence of "Passing Strange," the Stew-directed musical play that Lee filmed two years ago. Flik's struggle to reconcile his secular beliefs with his grandfather's bible-thumping intensity leads to a vivid struggle even when Lee blatantly fails to deliver on the narrative front.
Like "Passing Strange," Lee's ode to life in the projects contains a handmade, DIY spirit that keeps the movie honest and heartfelt despite many cracks in its design. This is the project that Lee wanted to make, and it looks like it. As a result, it's certainly his most sincere foray into the fictional arena in years and, outside of his documentaries, radiates a greater personal dimension than anything he has made in over a decade. It's painful to watch "Red Hook Summer" stumble because the man behind has tried so hard to get his groove back. However, it's energizing in the fleeting moments when he does just that: A stunning final montage takes the movie in a profound direction and brings the vitality of the setting into sharp focus, proving that even a weak Spike Lee joint is better than no Spike Lee joint at all.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lee has already announced his intentions of opening the movie this summer, but may need to spend more of his own money to do so. A tough sell despite the lasting appeal of his brand, "Red Hook Summer" could benefit from self distribution, where it might do solid business in limited release, but it's hard to imagine anything but a small distributor taking a risk on it.