Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Red Hook Summer

Directed by Spike Lee.
2012. Rated R, 121 minutes.
Clarke Peters
Jules Brown
Toni Lysaith
Heather Simms
Thomas Jefferson Byrd
De'Adre Aziza
Colman Domingo
Tracy Camilla Johns
James Ransone

Silas (Brown), aka Flik, has lived all of his very young life in Atlanta with his mom. This summer he's going to spend his vacation from school with his grandfather Bishop Enoch (Peters), whom he's never met before. To say the two are different is a massive understatement. The bishop lives in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing projects, is an intensely devout Christian, pastors Little Piece of Heaven, the neighborhood church, and is fully embedded in the community. He is also most definitely old school in his ways. All of them. Silas' house in Atlanta is in the suburbs, it seems he's never been to church, he walks around recording everything on his iPad and wants nothing more than to go back home. Nonetheless, he's stuck for a couple months. The two trying to understand each other while Silas learns the ropes of surviving in Red Hook ensues.

For director Spike Lee, it's a return to his Brooklyn roots. He even includes a brief reprisal of his role as Mookie from the classic Do the Right Thing. It's a place he knows exceedingly well and loves despite whatever blemishes it may have. This much is evident throughout the film. It is most easily identifiable during the totally unnecessary montage that closes the movie. Spike lets his cameras take longing looks at both his beloved borough and the entire city of New York. However, where Spike's movie really shines is when he's using that camera to create statements and metaphors. Simply put, there are some amazing shots in Red Hook Summer. The most poignant of these deal with the ceiling lights at Little Heaven. A section of them forms a cross and figures prominently in three very powerful shots. Between these shots is perhaps Lee's most frightening double-dolly sequence ever. If you're familiar with the director's work then you've seen the double-dolly shots, the portions of his films where the camera will be in tight enough on a character, or characters, that only the upper portion of their body is visible. He/she will be moving toward us viewers in a way that makes it seem as if they are floating. This is his signature move. Here, the movement is more subtle than usual, but grows in intensity, and has just a bit of shaky cam thrown in. It may only be ten or fifteen seconds of the movie, but it is a brutal moment.

Camera tricks are nice, but most people will be more concerned with the story and whether or not it holds their interest long enough for us to care by the time we get to the finale. The answer is yes...and no. The yes part is easy. Bishop Enoch is a rich character, full of faith, stubbornness, fear, and mystery. To many in the movie, he represents what's good about the community and he has uncompromising values. Still, he's leery of the local rif-raf even as he occasionally approaches them and tries to nudge them in the right direction. However, the most anyone knows of him before his arrival in Red Hook is that he came from "down south." Clarke Peters wraps all of this up into one dynamite package. He plays the role perfectly, both in the bishop's quieter moments and at his most boisterous, brandishing fire and brimstone.

The no part is a bit trickier. Much of it has to do with Silas and Chazz (Lysaith), the girl he hangs around. For starters, his story isn't sufficiently explored. After his mom drops him off in Brooklyn during the film's opening scene, she disappears from the movie for all but one brief scene an hour or so later. She could potentially add much in the way of context for Silas, but gives almost none. Similarly, little is done with what is revealed about his father. All we really get is that the boy is homesick. That's fine, but he whines so much about it, he's tough to like. Chazz is a much more fun personality with her unmistakably Brooklyn attitude and an interesting take on the world around her. The biggest problem with both of these characters is that they are poorly acted. Brown and Lysaith sound like they're using what they think to be their acting voices, like you might here in a school play. Many of their movements are too deliberate, artificial looking. It feels like Spike should have told them in rehearsals to just speak and act naturally. Since their exploits comprise a large chunk of the movie, it can be quite distracting.

The climax of the movie is where it will completely grab you or totally lose you. While this is true of lots of movies, the feeling is amplified here. The shot I spoke of earlier, which contains the big reveal, is the lightning rod moment. It may seem over the top and coming in from way out deep in left field. If that fits your line of thinking, you might just tune it out right then and there. If this is an "oh wow" moment for you, you'll be pulled into the fold, far more invested than you were before this instant. It turns into the sort of harsh social commentary Spike Lee is known for.

But is it too harsh? Viewed through the prism of the director's public distaste for Tyler Perry, it is hard not to see this as at least a partial backlash against the message Perry aggressively pushes throughout his body of work, a deconstruction, if you will. In that vein, it may feel heavy-handed and overly reactionary. However, I believe in judging each film on its own merit. Red Hook Summer makes no overt references to anyone else's work, so what I've written is pure speculation. Juicy, it may be, but still speculation. As a stand-alone, it ultimately succeeds by offering Bishop Enoch up for debate. Is his story one of redemption or does it end in eternal damnation? There is also the nagging question of how all of this affects Silas. While not among his best work, it is far from his worst. His return to Brooklyn seems to have re-invigorated him. RHS is intriguing, yet uneven. It is also the most passionate film he's made in years.


  1. Good review Dell. Definitely not one of Lee's better movies, but still interesting in where it dives into, especially when that last-act twist shows its head.

    1. I don't think there's any denying that it is interesting. Thanks.