Review: Spike Lee's RED HOOK SUMMER

Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee's 20th feature film and the sixth entry in his "Chronicles of Brooklyn" series (after She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, and He Got Game), represents a cinematic homecoming for the director, both to the setting of his beloved borough and to his low-budget indie beginnings. Red Hook Summer, in its ethos and aesthetic, wears its status as an independent, guerilla-style production very much on its sleeve. Shot in 18 days, often without permits, and funded entirely by Lee, Red Hook Summer was made outside of, and very consciously conceived in opposition to, the Hollywood system. Lee has repeatedly asserted in interviews that he never even bothered to approach studios with this project, feeling none would greenlight it, and even if they did, they would interfere in ways detrimental to his vision. Lee's DIY approach extends to the film's distribution as well, which is being handled by Variance Films, a small independent label.

All of this makes Red Hook Summer a much smaller scale film than his recent projects Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna, as well as two brilliant, epic documentaries on Hurricane Katrina. His new film consciously evokes Lee's earlier films; its child's-eye view recalls Crooklyn, but the more pertinent comparison is with Do the Right Thing, arguably still his best film. Not only is Red Hook Summer set in a very hot period in NYC, much like the earlier film, but Lee even briefly reprises his Do the Right Thing role as Mookie (now "Mr. Mookie"), still delivering pizzas as a middle-aged man. Red Hook Summer also, like almost all of Lee's films, passionately confronts social issues head-on, in this case, gentrification and those who have been left behind; the urban ills of drugs, gangs, and AIDS; and most importantly, religion. The latter issue figures significantly in Red Hook Summer's climactic scene, one that proved to be quite divisive at its Sundance premiere, and will no doubt be the same for audiences at its theatrical run.

I would love to be able to report that Red Hook Summer equals, or even comes close to, such superior entries in Spike Lee's filmography as Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, 25th Hour, or even the underrated He Got Game, but alas, I cannot do so. Lee's latest is a frustratingly uneven, chaotically messy film. The speechifying and didacticism of the screenplay (co-written by Lee and James McBride), admittedly a hallmark of most Spike Lee films, here bury what could have been a great film underneath overlong and awkwardly constructed material. While the film does effectively convey the anger and quiet desperation of the lives of many of its characters, its many aesthetic and technical weaknesses severely blunt its artistic impact.

Red Hook Summer follows Flik Royale (Jules Brown), a teenage boy from suburban Atlanta sent by his mother (De'Adre Aziza) to spend a summer in Red Hook to live with his grandfather Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), a local preacher, in the housing projects there. Flik at first deals with the culture shock of being transported from manicured lawns and open space to brutal heat and dirty, dangerous city streets by sullenly hiding behind the iPad 2 he uses to film the people and places around him. Flik's misery at having to endure Enoch's fervent religious lectures, being kept away from his vegan food, and forced to work at Enoch's church is slightly leavened by his budding romance with Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), a cute girl in the neighborhood of Flik's age.

However, Enoch soon emerges as the real central character, and he takes center stage for much of the film, especially in three fiery sermons at the church, during which actor Clark Peters commands the screen impressively. Enoch rails against the gentrification which has marginalized older residents of the neighborhood, young people's decadent obsessions with social networks, black people's self-destruction from drugs and crime, and many other grievances, wrapping them all up with the belief that Jesus is the only way out. But when a late-stage revelation from Enoch's past comes back to haunt him, it complicates, to say the least, how we view this character, and threatens the trust and authority he has spent so many years cultivating among his congregation.

What makes Red Hook Summer such a vexing film is that the elements are all there for a resonant film: great actors such as Clark Peters (best known from The Wire) and Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Deacon Zee, who gives booze-fueled monologues on missed stock opportunities; a director with a long track record of marrying a unique cinematic style with passionate political engagement; a charm and sweetness that emerges intermittently, especially in some of Flik and Chazz's exchanges. Unfortunately, Lee has chosen to privilege hectoring and lecturing the audience over compelling narrative and cinematic technique. The film is hampered by a substandard sound mix in which the dialog threatens to be drowned out by Bruce Hornsby's score and Judith Hill's songs, which play throughout nonstop, and seem to demand an emotional response that the film never truly earns. The dialog itself is another major problem, especially with the two young leads, whose exchanges never feel like what kids of that age would naturally say, but instead comes across as woodenly memorized and recited. The adults, also, often interact with each other in ways that feel like traded monologues rather than real conversation, making them less actual characters than mouthpieces for the messages that Lee and McBride wish to impart to us.

And yet, I can't quite write off Red Hook Summer as a total failure, if only because of the great turns by Peters and Byrd, as well as some faint flashes of the Spike Lee brilliance of old. So while I can't, when all is said and done, recommend it as a great, or even a very good film, it is worth a look for those curious to see Spike return to another Brooklyn hood in 2012, the number of another summer, to paraphrase Public Enemy, who provided the incendiary soundtrack to Do the Right Thing. Too bad that Red Hook Summer falls far short of the bar set by that classic film.

Red Hook Summer opens on August 10 in New York and August 24 in the rest of the country. For the theatrical schedule, visit the film's website.

Red Hook Summer's Brooklyn engagement will be at BAM Rose Cinemas, where Spike Lee will appear for the 7:10pm and 10pm screenings on August 10. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit BAM's website.
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