It’s hard to say how long it’s been since Spike Lee was as ambitious, and as focused, as he is on “Red Hook Summer.” Telling a story that evokes “Crooklyn” in its depiction of children coming of age, filtered through two subsequent decades of his professional successes and failures, not to mention an era of black cinema dominated by the iconography of filmmakers like Tyler Perry, Lee’s latest film is a return to the incendiary form that made his name in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, as it examines life in a Brooklyn housing project through the eyes of a preteen who’s forced to spend the summer with his ministerial grandfather. Overlong but consequently understated – perhaps more so than in any film he’s ever made – as its didactic and yet discursive tale builds to a devastating emotional crescendo, “Red Hook Summer” is not just Spike Lee’s most authentically “Spike Lee” film in more than a decade, but a remarkable display of a filmmaker reconnecting with his artistic voice.
The film stars newcomer Jules Brown as Flick, an Atlanta teenager sent to stay with his grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters) for the summer. Obsessed with his iPad 2, which allows him to view the world through its glossy screen rather than experiencing it firsthand, Flick immediately clashes with Enoch, a Bishop and community activist who doesn’t own a television, and who assigns the boy duties at the church where he works. While Flick whittles away his time tormenting a girl his age named Chazz (Toni Lysaith) and pilfering snacks from the church that Enoch won’t let him eat at home, Enoch struggles to connect with the boy, insisting on using religion as his method of communication regardless of Flick’s indifference.
When Enoch begins to realize that his scripture-laced conversations are meaningless to a boy in need of love, attention and most of all, parental guidance, he slowly attempts to change his approach from spiritual to practical. But after he is confronted by a mysterious figure from his past, Enoch is forced to reconsider his faith and try and take responsibility for his behavior, even as his alleged transgression threatens to destroy his reputation, not to mention his most important relationships within the community.
Suffice it to say that there’s no love lost between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; as one of the chief progenitors for what audiences consider black-oriented filmmaking in the last three decades, Lee has spared no effort decrying Perry’s “chitlin’ circuit” empire as an embodiment of everything the black community should rise up against. All of which is why it’s so odd, and yet exciting, that Lee seems to have attempted to make the kind of film that Tyler Perry might have, but approached it from his own point of view. Mind you, there are no characters played by men in drag, or scenes that veer wildly from comedy to melodrama and back again, virtually without warning; but Perry’s wheelhouse is storytelling focused on a black community struggling to sustain itself spiritually, much less financially or culturally, and Lee utilizes all of these tools in his portrait of the Red Hook housing project and a Bishop whose inflexible prioritization of religion jeopardizes everything he holds valuable.
Ironically, this approach feels like a spectacularly good fit for Lee, who’s always conceived his ensembles as much as a collection of voices as actual characters, and who seldom hesitates to offer a moral lesson for them (and the audience) to learn from. What’s remarkable about “Red Hook Summer” is that it initially seems to embrace a sense of traditional values, in particular, the prioritization of religion as a primary source of mental and spiritual uplift, but then it makes the argument that what maturing generations need is watchful guidance, not metaphors gleaned from Bible verses, and that those florid words are meaningless – if not an obstacle – when they aren’t reinforced with suitable behavior. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, one of Enoch’s parishioners, Sharon (Heather Alicia Simms), details how she keeps a watchful eye over her youngest daughter’s every move, especially after another of her children was raised in the shadow of the church and still fell prey to unsafe behavior. Parents and guardians can’t rely on the word of God and assume that it will keep their children responsible, she argues, offering the sort of advice that not only other characters but audience members feel obliged to consider.
Cinematically, the look of “Red Hook” is more reflective of the handmade films that Lee has produced in the last decade, the independent projects that used handheld cameras and improvisational cinematography to capture the visceral feeling of a sequence. While it’s tough not to miss his longtime director of photography, Ernest Dickerson, whose carefully-controlled, colorful, stylish and still substantive shots enhanced Lee’s equally stylized storytelling, this film still manages to be absolutely gorgeous, exploring a broad color palette and creating so many vivid, powerful moments. At the same time, Lee sort of pays homage to his past work with some of his choices, among them the punctuation of certain lines of dialogue, but more often camera angles or shots that will surely look familiar to longtime fans of his work. (And yes, that includes his famous “on the dolly” shot, used here as well or better than it ever has been.)
On the other hand, the performances are sometimes wildly uneven, starting with the two child actors, whose delivery is regularly more wooden or rehearsed than it is naturalistic or believable. Both Brown and Lysaith have an extremely distinctive, almost iconic look about them, offering profiles of children advancing warily towards adulthood, but their ability to keep pace with some of their more seasoned screen companions is inconsistent at best. On the other hand, Peters delivers nothing less than a tour de force as Enoch, creating such a vivid portrait of a man struggling to maintain his faith in the face of so much failure and doubt that once we start to learn things about him that may seem less than flattering (as opposed to merely being obstinate), we are somewhat helpless to empathize with how he struggles to know how to handle his problems. And as the constantly-soused Deacon Zee, Thomas Jefferson Byrd proves again he’s one of Hollywood’s most consistently-underrated actors, combining true nobility, self-justification, and abject vulnerability into one incredibly sympathetic character.
Occasionally, Lee’s animosity towards Perry threatens to overtake the momentum of the story – in one scene, there’s a movie poster on a wall making fun of his ‘Madea‘ movies – but there’s something incredibly fascinating about a filmmaker who appears to have been so incensed by a kind of filmmaking that bothered him, he set out to make the same kind of film in a way that didn’t. And at a running time of more than two hours, the film could easily stand to be cut down by at least 15 minutes or so without sacrificing its nuanced examination of its characters or the larger themes their actions explore. But its expansiveness gives it an almost mysterious feeling – the curiosity why something is happening or where it’s all going – which is almost always paid off, not in a literal or conventionally cathartic way, but with a laserlike focus that hones in precisely on what’s at stake both in the story and in the communities whose troubles he’s trying to document.
Again, however, the movie isn’t perfect, and as it advances towards theaters nationwide it would benefit from some editorial tightening, not to reduce its thoughtfulness or cut to emotional payoffs more quickly, but to excise unjustifiably long shots or sequences that look like they were meant to capture atmosphere more than character or story. As a director, Lee has become less angry, less divisive, and more democratic about his portraits of race and culture, and his collective outrage feels more like a byproduct of general social consciousness than issue-obsessed proselytizing – and the film is the better for it. Ultimately, Lee’s clarity of vision hasn’t been this sharp or unique since before “Crooklyn,” and it’s thrilling with “Red Hook Summer” to witness a return to the technique – and most of all, emotional wallop – that even today continues to give his films an enduring life as both entertainment, and enlightenment. [B]