Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, shot in just 18 days in the projects of the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood for which it’s named, feels by turns casual and studied, tossed-off and meticulously constructed. A self-financed in-between-projects lark for the director (his next major release, a documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s album Bad, is due out in the fall), Red Hook Summer takes its sweet time getting going. For an hour or more it ambles along like a rueful little coming-of-age comedy, then it abruptly takes a hard right into something like … gospel melodrama? Trying to find the right genre label to pin on this one is a fool’s game.
In fact, part of the point of Red Hook Summer seems to be to let its director play with different forms and moods, to figure out what kind of movie it is he wants to make. The result feels like a sketchbook, both in a good and bad sense; it’s alive and spontaneous and surprising in some parts, underdeveloped and shapeless in others. But a movie that’s alive and spontaneous and surprising is a rare enough thing to encounter—especially one that manages to address subjects as divisive and painful as inner-city black poverty without getting maudlin or preachy.
Or maybe that depends on what you mean by “preachy”: Red Hook Summer never lectures or scolds, but it does contain quite a bit of literal preaching. The movie is structured around three or four bravura sermons from the pulpit of Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), whose basement Baptist church is a pillar of the Red Hook housing project where he’s lived for 15 years. Enoch’s 13-year-old grandson Silas—or, as he prefers to be called, “Flik” (Jules Brown)—is coming from Atlanta to spend the summer with his granddad, for reasons that won’t become entirely clear until late in the film. A financially comfortable private-school kid who carries his iPad 2 everywhere, Flik has no idea how to fit into the culture of the Red Hook Houses, and he’s sulking his way through the summer, chafing at his grandfather’s strict rules. Atheist vegan or no, Flik is expected to attend every church service and eat whatever’s put before him. He also has to work a dreary job in the church office, pushing a mop for the permanently soused and possibly certifiable Deacon Zee (Thomas Byrd Jefferson).
Flik’s only sane company at the church job is a girl around his age, the exuberantly bossy Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith). She’s the daughter of a single mother (Heather Alicia Simms) who’s a loyal congregant and good friend of Brother Enoch, and under their elders’ watchful eyes Chazz and Flik start to pal around together, engaging in awkward flirtation and low-grade mischief.
Lee takes his time establishing the social world of the Red Hook Houses, a buzzing intergenerational ecosystem comparable to the Bed-Stuy block where his 1989 breakthrough film Do The Right Thing took place (the population of the Houses is more uniformly black—though we get a glimpse or two of encroaching white gentrifiers in the neighborhood, it isn’t tension between the races that drives Red Hook Summer’s plot.) Lee even briefly reprises the role of Mookie, Do the Right Thing’s wise-ass pizza deliveryman—though anyone hoping, like me, for an update on Mookie’s life over the past two decades will be left hanging. “The Hook,” as several characters call it, is a place with its share of poverty, dysfunction, and pain, but also with a strong sense of cohesion and community, as residents both gossip about and look after one another. When the community is torn by a shattering revelation a little more than halfway through, the movie’s languid heartbeat suddenly starts to race. The last 20 minutes are watch-through-your-fingers harrowing, as all the violence that was latent in the story’s first half bursts into plain sight.
All that sounds amazing, and many moments in Red Hook Summer are, especially Bishop Enoch’s incantatory, poetic, often wildly funny sermons—in those church scenes, Lee’s camera and Clarke Peters’ body seem to vibrate on the same exalted frequency. But Peters (best known for his work on The Wire and Treme) is so powerful and nuanced an actor that it’s hard not to note the gulf between his performance and those of some of the less experienced actors who surround him. The nonprofessional young actors playing Chazz and Flik are, to put it charitably, uneven, and some of their one-on-one scenes have a stilted, almost student-film-like quality—an off rhythm, which I assume is at least in part deliberate on Lee’s part, but which nonetheless slows down the movie’s middle section.
Red Hook Summer has an ongoing plot thread about Flik’s insistence on filming whatever’s in front of him with his iPad 2—not necessarily for the sake of art, but from a simple compulsion to observe and record the world around him, incurious as he pretends to be about it. Near the end, the crisp-looking video image gives way to a gorgeous lyrical montage shot on what looks like vintage Super-8 film (or is it just digital film run through an Instagram-type filter?). For a few minutes, all storytelling halts as we’re taken on a tour of the unexpected everyday beauties of Red Hook: the faces of the neighborhood, kayaks on the East River on a sunny day, a basketball court painted in honor of Hook-native-turned-NBA-star Carmelo Anthony. It’s not clear—nor, by the end of this ragged but unforgettable movie, does it really seem to matter—whether this series of images is the result of Flik’s iPad-toting summer, or just an excuse for Spike Lee himself to roam, high-tech recording gadget in hand, around the troubled Brooklyn neighborhood he loves.