Lies, lies, lies, that’s what we were fed. Red Hook Summer is no more a sequel to Do the Right Thing than The 25th Hour was, Mookie or no Mookie. Spike Lee’s latest film doesn’t quite detonate with the same force as his original 1989 drama, a film often described as Lee’s greatest (probably) as well as one of the so-called “Great American Movies” (I’ll vote for that). No, Red Hook Summer is the work of a milder director, and reeks of maturity and patience even while it indulges in unusually broad performances. The finale wears the shocking stamp of a genuine Spike Lee experience, it doesn’t speak as loudly about the human condition, nor does it touch too greatly on race relations. This is Spike Lee’s treatise on religion, and he’s just a hair kinder than you might expect. Sure, it’s no Do the Right Thing, but luckily it’s still Red Hook Summer, one of Lee’s best films in years.
Jules Brown stars as Flik Royale, a thirteen-year old upper-middle class Atlanta boy who’s been sent against his will to live with his grandfather in Brooklyn for the summer. Spike Lee introduces Flik in the car, driven to his new home and viewing the world through the camera on his iPad 2. He sees the minimalist lifestyle and urban jungle of his new Brooklyn neighborhood through a filter of modernism, and has no patience for his grandfather’s Bible-thumping. His grandfather is “Da Good Bishop” Enoch Rouse, played by “The Wire’s” Clarke Peters, and Enoch is committed to his grandson’s spiritual well being. So committed, it becomes readily apparent, that he’s blind to the generational divide that prevents Flik from embracing the word of the Lord.
Spike Lee treats the fleshy parts of Red Hook Summer as the kind of lazy summer parable usually reserved for less ambitious coming of age tales, and allows his film to simmer while Flik engages in minor misadventures with his asthmatic new best friend Chazz Morningstar, played by Toni Lysaith, and while Enoch dwells on the clearly-preferable past with his many interested, though usually ignored, female suitors. The imminent dangers of the urban environment, usually so evident in Lee’s cinema, are perhaps muted by the cast’s religious leanings. Flik’s only experience with the ugliness that surrounds him are limited to a woman who responds violently to chicken scratches on her wet cement, Enoch’s infrequent loss of temper and Nate Parker playing “Box,” a gang member and aspiring hip-hop artist whose distrust of Enoch’s faith has unexpected depth.
The performances in Red Hook Summer take on an unexpected theatricality, which surely clarifies the alien nature of Flik’s new environment, and quite possibly neutralizes criticism of the young cast’s slightly awkward performances. Much of Red Hook Summer plays like an overly earnest church play, but Spike Lee is merely luring his audience into a false sense of nostalgia. Events transpire late in the film that turn a simplistic tale into something far more unsettling and raise questions that Lee has already answered without even hinting at the murkier, ugly shades of grey ahead.
Red Hook Summer’s kind heart is surely tainted, but does that make the self-discovery and religious redemption any less meaningful? Flies on the wall will have a field day with audience conversations when the lights go up after the credits. Rich, unexpected and as complex as you’d expect from a Spike Lee joint, Red Hook Summer risks turning potential supporters away with its strange aesthetic and sleepy pacing. Let it wash over you and forget that a strange conclusion is coming. The experience is among the most worthy that 2012 has yet to offer.