Red Hook Summer: Changing Your Relationship Status with Spike Lee to “It’s Complicated”
Few filmmakers can pack a punch like Spike Lee. He has an ear for potent dialogue, an eye for powerful imagery, and that rarest of gifts, the voice with something to say. However, with just his second writing credit in the last decade, it’s clear that we’re not going to get another Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X out of Lee… and we’ll be lucky to get another Bamboozled, a film of wandering focus but undeniable power. Like all of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer delivers some truly rich emotional scenes, creating distinct and interesting characters in a community we begin to feel coming alive. Yet like most of Lee’s later films, his buckshot approach to themes he feels compelled to address and his jarring tonal shifts destroy any semblance of control. What is Lee attempting to do here? The nostalgic coming-of-age story is wrecked, the losing-one’s-religion story is wrecked, the frustrated social commentaries about the black community are wrecked. Every scene that works is eventually cast afloat into an ocean of mish-mashed themes and soliloquies. Da Mayor once told Mookie to do the right thing– now it seems Lee is just trying to do EVERYthing.
Flik (Jules Brown) sees the world from behind his iPad. He films everything in front of him, distancing himself from a real connection with his surroundings. When his mother (De’Adre Aziza) sends him to live in Red Hook with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch (Clark Peters), it seems that distance is the only thing that will keep him sane. Enoch doesn’t want Flik on his iPad all the time, or eating the vegan foods he insists upon, or following his accustomed routine. He wants flik to become part of his Christian Red Hook community– and what a community it is. We meet Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who rants drunkenly about stocks. We meet Box (Nate Parker), a former choir boy turned aspiring rapper/thug. We meet Mr. Mookie (Spike Lee) and Mother Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), characters whose lives have changed since we met them in Do The Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have it, respectively. Most interesting to Flik is Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), an outspoken loudmouth of a local girl who helps at the church. Flik stands unmoved during Bishop Enoch’s rousing sermons– will he come around and see things from Enoch’s perspective? Will he and Chazz fall in love? Will this coming-of-age tale unfold like we think it will?
Well… yes and no. Lee’s script with recent collaborator James McBride refuses to settle on one issue for too long. The scenes, while many of them are compelling, are extremely disjointed, giving the idea that Lee simply threw a dart onto a wall of Big Important Themes and decided which one he’d tackle next via that random method. Lee tackles rap culture, gentrification, African Americans’ investments, and corruption in the church– four very large subjects all deserving of their own films– in back to back scenes with very little connection outside of Flik’s observing eye. Lee has made this style of tangent-happy writing work in the past, but here, the shifts rip at the seams due to Lee’s indecision whether this is an angry “issues” film or a warm nostalgic coming-of-age. Without spoiling the proceedings, there’s an event with roughly twenty-five minutes left in the film that absolutely changes everything we’ve seen to that point, sending the story deep into darkness… only to then attempt an optimistic and celebratory happy ending montage a few scenes later. How did Lee think this would possibly come together? He also follows a scene of savage violence with Isaiah Whitlock Jr.’s catch phrase, “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.” Why deliver a comedic punchline to a notably dramatic moment?
Individual scenes do pack a wallop. Clark Peters gives a commanding performance as the Bishop, and the church set pieces are filled with a vibrant joy. Lee is better than possibly any other filmmaker at establishing a large number of characters quickly– they never feel like stereotypes, yet they feel instantly recognizable. The church lady who hands out pamphlets, the kind-hearted woman in the wheelchair, the white counselor at a camp for the less privileged, the angry woman who hates her neighbors, the drunk rambling about politics, the nervous man in the back of the church (played by Broadway actor Colman Domingo in a performance with great emotional heft in very little screen time). In the church scenes, Lee lets the camera pan around, and even the characters we don’t get to know become familiar faces and welcome presences to us. Sermons on screen can quickly grow preachy or tiresome or repetitive, yet Lee strikes just the right note in his. The adult characters in general exude the full lives they’ve lived– a moment between the Bishop and Chazz’s mother (Heather Simms) in which they discuss why they never got married is lovely and sad, and the presences of Mookie and Nola Darling, seeing how they’ve aged as characters and actors, lend to the creation of the history of this world.
You may have noted the praise I’ve given the adult actors in this coming-of-age story. That’s because– and I really get no pleasure out of saying this– the child performances are among the worst I’ve ever seen. Jules Brown never suggests the depth of emotion necessary to make the movie feel truly about him. Lee doesn’t really help him by cutting away from his storyline so much for his tangential moments, but these moments simply are more compelling. (Also, Flik’s final moment with Chazz is completely unearned in the script, denying Brown the emotional scene we get in most coming-of-age stories.) Brown is never terrible, however, merely a non-entity– Lysaith as Chazz is terrible. When you’re watching a movie and your mind wanders to the casting room and wondering how this person got past the initial set of auditions, you’re watching a bad performance, gang. Again, Lee does no favors by giving her his usual stylized dialogue to spit out in the most cliched sassy-black-girl tone imaginable… but she is never even convincingly sassy! She speaks loudly, makes big eyes, wiggles her finger, rolls her neck, cocks her hip out to one side, yet the intention behind her voice is totally missing and the soul behind her eyes is nowhere to be found. Many child performances seem stilted or full of effort, but I can’t think of one that misses the mark like this one. You can’t blame her, she’s just a kid– I refuse to think a team of professionals led by a veteran director of nearly thirty years didn’t realize the massive problem in front of them.
Yet that seems to be a theme in recent Spike Lee films– intermittent brilliance peppered with helpings of disappointment. He gives you enough wildly enjoyable films to remain unquestionably relevant (25th Hour was only a decade ago, and Inside Man was one of the best bank heist films of the last several years), but that just makes the inevitable disappointment all the greater. He is Buttercup: building me up just to let me down. Much like with Woody Allen, I can never recommend you miss an entry in Spike Lee’s oeuvre. He’s a unique voice with unique style and every film has at least enough worthwhile performances or scenes to keep it interesting. Allen’s films never get bad though, just boring. Lee’s films sometimes get so awkward or stilted that you begin to question the vision, just to have him suck you back in moments later. I mentioned above the audacity of a happy-ending montage following the darkness of the plot turn above… I still found myself moved, loving the characters, remembering this world fondly upon watching the montage. That’s how skilled Lee is: he can jerk you around yet still leave you wanting what comes next. It would just behoove you to temper your expectations. There’s no unrequited love in this relationship anymore; only tumultuous love-hate days lie ahead.