Beware screening your movie too early at a big festival. Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" was one example of an unfinished movie getting creamed at Cannes. Spike Lee, who defines the current indie model –lucrative commercial director by day, scrappy indie doc and featuremaker by night–unveiled his self-financed "Red Hook Summer" at Sundance to less-than-stellar reviews. So he took the movie back to the editing room. Lo and behold, it scored better pre-release reviews, and opened solidly in four theaters last weekend.
The movie brooks comparison to Lee's classic 1989 "Do the Right Thing," which earned two Oscar nominations (Danny Aiello and Lee's original screenplay) but deserved a best picture berth as well as a spot on the Sight & Sound Top 50 (which featured one woman and no black filmmakers), partly because Lee's mature Mookie pops in and out. "Do the Right Thing" is one of 25 films included in Universal's DVD set celebrating its 100th anniversary.
In 'Red Hook Summer" Lee makes several references to "The Wire," from the casting of Clarke Peters, who gives a masterful, powerful central performance as a Baptist preacher with a secret, to Isaiah Whitlock Jr.'s signature "sheeyeeeet!" (he first did it in Lee's mighty fine "The 25th Hour," adapted by "The Game of Thrones" exec producer David Benioff from his own novel).
At the L.A."Red Hook Summer" premiere at CAA's gleaming Century City offices, the movie played to Lee's hand-picked crowd, from Alfre Woodard to "The Wire" star Lance Reddick (who has started his own production company). At the after-party serving Brooklyn Lager, Lee told me that after Sundance he cut out much of the grainy video shot by the Atlanta kid (Jules Brown) who is visiting his grandfather (Peters). (He's wields an iPad, but Lee says he shot Super 8.) "It's better that you didn't see that version," Lee said.
Indie distributor Variance is partnering with new distributor 40 Acres and a Mule–what took Lee so long?– on opening the movie in 35 markets over the next few weeks. Lee has long mentored up-and-comers, but if he took on presenting and branding more indie African-American films as a distributor, he could make a big difference in the culture.