It’s been over 25 years since director Spike Lee debuted with She’s Gotta Have It and more than 20 since his 1989 film Do The Right Thing was released to critical acclaim. He’s had his highs and lows since then, with his lows particularly low. Perhaps that’s why Lee decided to revisit the world of his best film in Red Hook Summer.
While Red Hook Summer isn’t a sequel to Do The Right Thing, there are some obvious thematic similarities and welcome callbacks (the most obvious being Lee himself briefly appearing as Mookie, his character from Do The Right Thing). But Lee can’t recapture the magic of his best films by just returning to the old neighborhood, and this coming of age story meanders through its “old values versus young values” plot before a shocking and unsettling climax.
Atlanta teenager “Flick” Royale (newcomer Jules Brown) is spending his summer in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn with his grandfather, Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), the eccentric Jesus-loving bishop of the local Li’l Peace of Heaven church. Since the two have never met before and Royale is a somewhat-spoiled child of the suburbs there’s an obvious clash of values — particularly because Flick doesn’t believe in God. However, as Flick begins to acquaint himself with the neighborhood and its faces, especially a young girl named Chazz (newcomer Toni Lysaith), he begins to enjoy what Brooklyn has to offer and appreciate his grandfather’s point of view.
Some of the acting performances are phenomenal. While its obvious that the two youthful leads lack acting experience (some of their delivery is cringe-inducing), I can ignore that because of the electric performance of Peters, who demonstrates an incredible range of emotion in what had to be a difficult part to play. Other standouts include Lee favorite Thomas Jefferson Boyd as the drunk Deacon Zee and Heather Simms as Chazz’s mother Sarah, both of whom should get cast in more films. The movie is also filled with music, with only a handful of scenes missing some sort of background music. Most of it is wonderful and a highlight of the film.
But even aside from the final half-hour, there are other major issues with the film. The movie plods throughout most of its two-hour length, with extended scenes in the church and the characters conversing that slow the film down. Like most of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer is preachy on social issues, and in particular many of Enoch’s words on current African-American culture echo similar statements Lee has made in the past in films like Bamboozled and in his interviews and lectures (of course, Peters’ fiery preaching delivery is far more animated than Lee’s real-life stoic self). So you can expect plenty of commentary on current issues in the lives of urban African-Americans, with some of the issues ones that Lee has been commenting on since his first films.
As for the climax, one thing I did like is that Lee and co-writer James McBride mislead the audience with many suggestions on where the plot is headed, especially if the film ended up following a more conventional storyline. So while it’s admirable that the story ultimately goes into a completely different, albeit abrupt, direction, the film eventually ends following the initial coming-of-age storyline. Was the climax included just to shock, and, if so, why not resolve that unsettling plot?
Because of that I can’t recommend the film. Again, while I appreciate that it defies convention, the major storyline that is introduced in the climax goes unresolved and I don’t know what Lee wanted to say here other than to shock audiences expecting the film to turn out differently. But just because a magician pulls a chicken out of a hat instead of a rabbit doesn’t mean it makes the trick any better.