Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee & James McBride.
Starring: Jules Brown (Flik Royale), Clarke Peters (Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse), Toni Lysaith (Chazz Morningstar), Nate Parker (Box), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Deacon Zee), Jonathan Batiste (Da Organist T.K. Hazelton), Heather Simms (Sister Sharon Morningstar), James Ransone (Kevin), De'Adre Aziza (Colleen Royale), Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Detective Flood), Spike Lee (Mr. Mookie).
Spike Lee movies, even the great ones, have messiness about them. He needs this messiness to get the raw intensity that makes his best movies so good. Take his masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989) fir example. In the 23 years since it was made, no other American film has been able to distill race relations so succinctly, so brilliantly, as Lee’s films which is about an extremely hot summer day in Brooklyn, when all that pent up anger and hostility that simmers just beneath the surface in that multi-ethnic neighborhood explodes. Do the Right Thing is brilliant precisely because of its messiness.
His latest film, Red Hook Summer, tries very hard to recreate that feel. It feels like a film by a young filmmaker, simply bursting with ideas who feels he has to get them all on screen at the same time. This gives the film a propulsive energy that so few films have. And yet, because Lee tries to EVERYTHING in Red Hook Summer, he doesn’t really succeed in accomplishing much of anything. The film is full of plot holes that only get more glaring as the movie goes along. The final act plot twist is simply ludicrous, and raises more questions that the film is unprepared to deal with.
The film is about Flik (Jules Brown), a young boy in the crest of his teenage years who is left by his mother with his grandfather Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) in Red Hook, Brooklyn for the summer. Why she does this is never explained, and is the first (and biggest) plot hole in the movie. We hear it’s because she’s going on a trip, but later it does seem like she’s back home in Atlanta, while Flik is still suffering in Brooklyn.
No matter, she leaves him there because the movie requires her to leave him there for there to be a movie at all. Flik is a quiet kid – he hides behind his Ipad, taking pictures and videos of everything he sees around him. In this version of Red Hook, he seems to have two choices. He can either father his grandfather, a bishop at a local, struggling church, or he can drift towards the gangs – led by Box (Nate Parker), who is the son of a former parishioner of the church of left when she died. Enoch has not given up hope on him yet, even though it’s clear that Box is a bitter, angry young man who is not ready – and may never be – to be welcomed back into the church. Flik spends his days trying to fix up that church – overseen by drunken Deacon Zee (Lee regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd, usually so good, but here so far over the top he cannot be believed for a second), and starting a cautious, pre-teen romance with Chazz (Toni Lysaith).
There are great moments in Red Hook Summer – almost all of them revolve around Clarke Peters. This is a truly great performance, as Peters gives his impassioned sermons and life lessons, all the while we can tell, he is hiding something. The film is full of great music as well – not just in the church, although those numbers are soaring as well, but also littered throughout the film itself – most memorably in the closing montage. This is a movie about these people who sees them clearly – knows they are all flawed, and that all of them are searching, in their own ways, for salvation.
Perhaps the problem with the movie is Jules Brown as Flik. He is too passive in the film, just kind of letting everything go on around him, and never really becoming an active participant in his own life, or the film. As such, the movie has a hole at its core that it never really gets over. Then there is the fact that the rest of the performances all pale in comparison to Peter’s electrifying performance as Enoch – everything fades to the background whenever he is on screen. He even tries his best to sell that horrible plot twist in the last act that makes no sense by itself – and even less sense in relation to the rest of the movie.
Still, while Red Hook Summer has to ultimately be seen as a failure, there are things I liked about it. The music. The performance by Clarke Peters. That messy, raw intensity of the Brooklyn streets that no one can capture quite like Spike Lee can. Oh, and the fact that we finally learn that Mookie is okay. That made me smile.