Some cinephiles still hold out hope for another masterpiece from Spike Lee, but have still accepted the greater likelihood that each new film of his will be a jumble of brilliance, awkwardness, and inchoate passion. When Red Hook Summer premiered at Sundance in January, it was positioned as Lee’s roots move — a return not only to more personal, independently-financed filmmaking, but also to the Brooklyn streets of his early work after bigger-budgeted projects like Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna. Having since gained a distributor and lost nine minutes from its running time, Red Hook Summer appears now in theaters as a quintessential Spike Lee Joint, with all the virtues and flaws that have long characterized his work: vivid cinematic intelligence lavished on a meandering, half-baked narrative; scenes of intense power rubbing shoulders with misguided ideas and indifferent stretches; dialogue that alternates between insightful and on-the-nose; and wildly uneven performances from a mixed cast of pros and amateurs. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll scratch your head. And, as always, you’ll marvel at the auteur’s talent, evident even in his weakest efforts.
Red Hook Summer finds Flik (Jules Brown), a comfortably middle-class teen from Atlanta, deposited in Brooklyn to spend a few months with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). In the first half of the film, Lee presents a slice of life, wandering between unfunny comic vignettes as Flik interacts with the people around him — notably sassy girl Chazz (Toni Lysaith) and the drunk Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) — and undramatic standoffs as he resists his grandfather’s efforts to bring him to Jesus. Flik is the sort of (im)passive protagonist who rarely works on film, an antihero so domesticated he’d make Antoine Doinel puke: evincing little interest in active rebellion, he just wants to go home, or else hide behind his iPad. We never get to know him, and his desires — such as they are — are too low-stakes to be compelling. There’s no fire in the conflict with his grandfather, and his unreadable teenage sullenness becomes as maddening to the viewer as it is to the bishop. As scene after scene goes nowhere, it’s hard to care about the kid or his predicament.
And then the film goes to church. Lee’s talent has often required some onscreen showmanship to hook itself to, and it isn’t until the first church service that his movie truly comes to life, as Enoch — a lost anachronism of a man in everyday life — finds his purpose in the pulpit. If only the whole movie were pitched to the level of intensity Peters demonstrates in the church scenes. (Jonathan Batiste’s energetic performances of his own organ music lend considerable support.) Lee ups his game here, too, preparing his shots and cuts with greater care and saturating the screen with the primary colors of the church’s stained glass windows. Unfortunately, these scenes have little narrative context apart from Enoch’s plan for Flik, until a dramatic revelation comes out of left field.
Red Hook Summer self-consciously recalls Do the Right Thing, referencing key lines of dialogue and dropping a character in for gimmicky cameos, but the laserlike focus of Lee’s most incisive film is missing. The new work also resembles Crooklyn in setting and point of view, but it lacks that film’s ease and warmth. If anything, its late left turn and damaged preacher character bring to mind Jungle Fever. The screenplay (by Lee and James McBride, who wrote the novel and script of Miracle at St. Anna) shifts its attention from a boy’s coming of age to a contemplation of religion’s role in today’s society, leaning heavily on themes of hypocrisy and redemption. All of this is interesting, and animated by a nuanced, electrifying performance from the great stage, screen, and television veteran Peters (best known for The Wire and Treme) as a troubled clergyman named for the Biblical figure who ascended to heaven alive. But there’s a difference between complexity and muddiness, and the film veers toward the latter. As damaging as the unfocused script is the casting of two amateurs in key roles. Brown and Lysaith are New York teens whose only prior experience consisted of roles in school plays, and both are way out of their depth and visibly uncomfortable on camera, struggling with Lee’s stylized dialogue in stilted line readings that clash with the natural performances of the more experienced cast members.
As always with a Spike Lee film, Red Hook Summer looks terrific. Aided greatly by cinematographer Kerwin DeVonish (who worked as a camera operator on several earlier Lee films) and editor Hye Mee Na, Lee remains one of American cinema’s preeminent visual stylists. Though not quite as kinetic as some of his early work, his use of color, his shot composition, and his camera placement and movement are still impeccable and startling. And though there’s nothing as breathtaking as the riot in Do the Right Thing, Lee again demonstrates his skill in choreographing scenes of public upheaval.
Someday Spike Lee may pull together a narrative to match his visual talent and once again create a film that’s rock solid from start to finish. Until then, we’ll have to be content with another thought-provoking mess from this immensely gifted, eternally frustrating artist.