While there are few more polarizing public figures than filmmaker Spike Lee, his verbal battles with the likes of Clint Eastwood and his often controversial public statements should not obscure the fact that he’s still one of the greatest living American directors.
His newest, Red Hook Summer, is, at least on the surface, a low-key coming-of-age story, similar to his 1994 film, Crooklyn. One of Lee’s chief trademarks, however, is showing how much more complex things get the deeper you dig. That’s the most obvious theme that emerges from Red Hook Summer, and Lee at his best is a master at knowing which details to let the watcher in on right away and which ones to withhold.
Red Hook Summer introduces us to a colorful cast of characters as seen through the eyes of Flik Royale (Jules Brown), a young teenager from middle-class Atlanta, sent to spend the summer with his grandfather in the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn. Flik is, in most respects, a typical teen- sullen, uncommunicative, rarely looking up from the ipad that serves as his security blanket while complaining about missing home and making only half-hearted attempts to connect with the residents of Red Hook. The culture shock of dealing with his deeply religious grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (an intense Clarke Peters), the Good Bishop’s alcoholic sidekick Deacon Zee (a hilarious Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and the various neighborhood characters (including a very Hitchcockian cameo by the director as Mookie, still delivering pizzas for Sal’s) is mostly played for laughs, at least at the beginning. But soon Chazz, a spirited girl his age (Toni Lysaith, making her debut), provides him with a connection he can relate to.
How he deals with the resulting pressures- his grandfather’s repeated (usually public) attempts at religious conversion, his “it’s complicated” relationship with Chazz, the dangers of inner-city life- is at the heart of the film, which also includes some great rants from Deacon Zee, a wonderful series of scenes in which the African-American church is portrayed as a cultural phenomenon as much as a religious one, and later, in the movie’s most disturbing scene, the revelation of a dark secret in Flik’s family past, one which he slowly learns the full extent of his connection to.
It’s by no means a flawless movie- some of the “naturalistic” dialogue between the young actors can be a bit stilted at times, and the music, by Bruce Hornsby, of all people, occasionally draws too much attention away from the scene at hand- but it is a movie with a deep heart. And, as is common for Spike Lee, the best parts are the ones you don’t see coming. Just like in Do The Right Thing, still likely his best-loved and respected movie, he sets off a powder keg of emotions, and lets the watcher set his or her own moral compass. Seen through Flik’s eyes- Flik’s filming of his life with his ipad is a nice, innocent stand-in for Lee’s intentions- it’s a subtle meditation on the complex emotional life of both children and adults, how they navigate it both internally and externally, and most of all the human relationship with guilt and redemption.
Red Hook Summer is showing throughout the Los Angeles area starting on Friday, August 24th.