Lee’s gotta have it in Brooklyn
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 24, 2012
“Red Hook Summer,” Spike Lee’s affectionate homage to the Brooklyn that has been his generous muse for more than a quarter-century, exemplifies exactly what has made Lee such a fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, figure over that time. Suffused with the kind of acute observation, social awareness and vernacular humor that made “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing” and the rest of Lee’s Brooklyn canon so vivid, “Red Hook Summer” also suffers from the same stiffness and overworked melodrama that has sometimes been his downfall. But even with those hiccups, this coming-of-age portrait provides one more instance of Lee as one of this country’s finest cinematic regionalists.
Flik (Jules Brown) is 13 when his mother, Colleen (De’Adre Aziza), brings him from their comfortable middle-class home in Atlanta to New York to spend a summer with Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), the grandfather Flik has never known and from whom Colleen has been mysteriously estranged. Bishop Enoch, a Baptist preacher with a storefront church called Lil’ Piece of Heaven, never takes a step without his Bible, and he is determined to give Flik the spiritual education the boy has been sorely missing. For his part, Flik, who compulsively films his grandfather’s Brooklyn housing project with his ever-present iPad, finds little amusement in his summer pastime: spending time in his grandfather’s meager church with the ranting, alcoholic Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and a mouthy girl his own age named Chazz (Toni Lysaith). Things between Flik and the bishop are tense from the get-go, when Enoch offers his grandson a hearty home-cooked meal. “I don’t eat fried chicken,” Flik says dismissively. “I’m vegan.”
Such are the cultural divides, big and small, that Flik and his fellow characters must navigate throughout “Red Hook Summer,” which Lee wrote with James McBride and much of which was filmed in the McBride family’s own tiny church. In fact, the scenes in that modest sanctuary are some of the film’s finest, as Peters delivers long, fiery stem-winders in which he fulminates against inadequate health care, education and public safety, as well as gentrification, technology and the ever-coarsening culture enveloping his congregation’s children. “Meet my gangster!” he cries, holding the Bible above his head. “Meet my Internet!”
It’s possible to discern Lee’s own cry of the heart in these passages, even as he evinces his own tentative embrace of emerging technology (he filmed “Red Hook Summer” on a brand-new Sony digital camera, but some viewers may recognize a shot or two of good old-fashioned celluloid in the mix). Lee and McBride clearly savor the idiomatic humor that transforms the older characters’ dialogue into something poetic and musical; it’s bubbling over with priceless figures of speech, from a single mother working “from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night” to a sewage crisis at the church that “would give the Roto-Rooter man the mumps.”
These are the moments that lend “Red Hook Summer” an air of something lived rather than acted, a spontaneity that is all too often stalled by some less-than-stellar performances, especially from the cast’s younger members. Scenes late in the movie, when the plot takes a turn for the luridly melodramatic (throwing the film’s entire conceit into question, not to mention Colleen’s judgment), are staged with similar clunky obviousness.
If those flaws aren’t easily overlooked, they’re nonetheless easy to forgive when viewers meet up with a few old friends from Spike Lee joints past -- including the filmmaker’s own alter ego, Mr. Mookie, still delivering Sal’s pizzas, albeit with more gray in his beard. A conversation between Bishop Enoch and Chazz’s mother (Heather Simms) will ring wrenchingly true to any parent, but especially to those trying to bring up black girls and boys in an environment that can be apathetic at best and hostile at worst.
By the time “Red Hook Summer” concludes with one of Lee’s signature soaring, flawlessly executed montages (think of the bravura overture to “He Got Game”), we remember why he has become such a valued cinematic voice. When Spike Lee gets out of his own way, he’s among the most intuitive and fluent visual storytellers working in the medium today.
Contains brief violence, profanity and a disturbing situation.