Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Red Hook Summer (2012)

Red Hook Summer (2012)
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).
With Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee attempted to go home again – to make a film in his native Brooklyn quickly, cheaply and one the fly. The fact that he brings back Mookie from Do the Right Thing shows you what type of film Lee was aiming for in Red Hook Summer. And the film does in fact have the energy of a much younger filmmaker – someone winging it, and putting everything he can into one movie, because they’re never sure they’ll get to make another. That has a downside though, in that Red Hook Summer doesn’t feel entirely thought through and that’s true even before the twist that comes about 80 minutes into this two-hour movie, which essentially means the last act is a completely different movie from what came before – and raises all sorts of questions the film doesn’t answer. Red Hook Summer is, in short, a mess – a sometimes entertaining one, with a great central performance, but a mess just the same.
The plot of the film is almost an inverse of the part of Lee’s Crooklyn (1994) where the daughter went to visit wealthy relatives down South. This time, Flik (Jules Brown), a kid of about 12, from Atlanta is dropped off by his mother to spend the summer with the grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), that he has never met before in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Enoch lives in a small apartment, is a widower, and his entire life revolves around the Church – A Little Slice of Heaven – where he preaches every Sunday, to what seems like dwindling numbers. His sermons are fiery though – and really make up the backbone of the film, as he rails against poverty, drugs, the internet and other things plaguing the youth. Peters delivers this sermon with passion and control – and they are the best moments in the film, whether you agree with them or not.
Flik is enlisted to help out at the church – he resists at first, but is slowly won over. He spends much of his time behind his iPad – using it to film the world around him. He develops a friendship with a girl around his age – Chazz (Toni Lysaith) – and the two play and flirt in the way of 13 year olds who don’t know how to express themselves in any other way. Chazz’s mother and Enoch are circling each other in a similar way – just decades down the line.
For the first 80 minutes or so Red Hook Summer seems to be a film very much like Crooklyn – more of a series of vignettes about the people in this neighborhood, focusing on Enoch and Flik, but generous with everyone who surrounds them. It doesn’t work as well as Crooklyn – it lacks the focus of that film, and the specificity of detail that Lee (and his siblings, who co-wrote Crooklyn, about their own childhood), brought to that film. Whether that’s because Lee is now a fifty-something year old filmmaker, trying to make a film about kids today, rather than about his past, or something else, I don’t know.
And then, at the 80 minutes of film, Lee basically throws a bomb into the plot of Red Hook Summer – and the whole movie changes. It doesn’t change in way that re-contextualizes everything we’ve seen before – that would require things to be more thought through than they appear to be here. Revelations about Enoch’s past are revealed, and basically take over the plot for the rest of the films – at least until the strangely upbeat, sentimental montage that ends the film.
Why did Lee and co-writer James McBride make this choice? I honestly don’t know, because I really don’t know what they make of the revelations, or what they say about Enoch. I will say that for his part Peters’ performance never wavers – he is great from beginning to end, and those closing scenes are among the best in the film for his work alone. They also raise a lot of questions – the biggest one being why Flik’s mother left him there with Enoch in the first place? She clearly knew about them – which is why she hasn’t seen her father in years – but the film never does explain why she needed to leave Flik, and once we know what we know, her decision is irresponsible.
I admire Lee and his willingness to experiment. There are a lot of filmmakers of Lee’s stature who talk about returning to making smaller, more personal movies where they have more control – but very few actually do it. Here, Lee captures the energy of his earlier films, but the plot mechanics undermine him at every turn – as does the fact that Flik just isn’t all that engaging of a character. Red Hook Summer is a mess in many ways – and while you can say that about a number of Spike Lee films, I think here the mess is far less interesting than normal.

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