Anyone worried that the years have worn down Spike Lee’s edge, rest assured. The filmmaker is just as prickly as ever — and intent on getting under your skin. His new drama, Red Hook Summer, takes aim at poverty, pollution, politicians, pedophiles, pimps and pushers with a religious fervor. Even Barack Obama does not escape his ire.
Always a personal filmmaker, Lee has turned the movie into his personal bully pulpit in a far more literal way than he has in the past. As you listen to Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) rant about what ails society today, you can’t help but hear Lee’s voice in the proselytizing preacher at the center of Red Hook. But there are saints among the sinners, too, and before the end, nearly everyone in the film, including the pushers, will get into the finger-pointing act.
Red Hook Summer is also the product of a conflicted soul. You can see it in the passion play unfolding inside the church where much of the film is set. The Bishop’s flock is dwindling, he’s desperate for a financial good Samaritan to come along, and then his grandson Flik (Jules Brown) comes for the summer and the preacher has a new soul to save.
In time, there will be even greater crosses for the Bishop to bear as vengeance and forgiveness fight it out within the crumbling walls of Lil’ Peace of Heaven. (The church name would seem ironic if it weren’t the actual name of a local congregation.) The conflict contributes to the mess of a film that Lee has made, but it also brings Red Hook Summer a measure of saving grace. With its script co-written with James McBride, some of the diatribes about doing the right thing soar, others thunder with righteous indignation, and some simply fizzle.
In truth, the film fizzles as much as it fumes. There is a kind of lassitude that sets in, even as it builds toward some kind of reckoning. It can be felt in the difficulty the filmmaker has knitting all the grievances together. Much of the debate is framed by the dissonance between the Bishop and his resistant grandson. Their clashes echo themes that can be found in Lee’s distinctive body of work. Certainly issues of race, empowerment and class are there. But in a fundamental way, when the final shoe is dropped, the film fails us.
Red Hook Summer is billed as part of Lee’s Brooklyn chronicles, which began years ago and includes, among others, the seminal 1989 Do the Right Thing. That sense of place does indeed inform “Red Hook.” And the polemics seem cherry-picked from any number of his films — certainly Malcolm X is one — while the flavoring of its lighter moments is straight out of She’s Gotta Have It.
As the film opens it’s clear that something has caused a major riff between the Bishop and Flik’s mother (De’Adre Aziza), but it will be a long time before we know just how dark a thing it is. Their conversation is clipped, careful. Flik is not quite a teenager but he’s working on it, wearing a sullen look and a sour attitude. It happens that he’s a filmmaker too, his iPad capturing the projects in stark and often depressing terms.
While Flik is dismissive of Red Hook, Lee loves his Brooklyn backyard, and with cinematographer Kerwin DeVonish, he makes time to play. There are nods to his long love affair with the region scattered throughout the film, a little like postcards from the edge. The projects themselves feel spruced up and uncluttered, even the local thugs pushing their drugs look freshly bathed.