The early word on the street about Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer was that it would be a return to his early storytelling concerns. And, yes, there are plenty of signs that Lee was attempting to mine his back catalog with this new project. There's the return to a decaying and poor urban setting, the Crooklynesque device of a kid coming of age via an extended stay in an unfamiliar place, and then, there's the very brief return of Lee as Mookie, his character from his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing. All these things do not, it turns out, add up into a Spike Lee film for the ages. Even though it's not among his best, Red Hook Summer still contains moments that remind viewers why they paid attention to Lee in the first place.
The film opens up on young Flik (Jules Brown) traveling to stay with his grandfather (Clarke Peters of "The Wire" and "Treme" fame), a pious bishop of a small, struggling church in the heart of "da Red Hook." Flik's never met his grandfather and the two immediately butt heads over technology (Flik's iPad), diet, and faith. Hanging around the church, Flik soon befriends Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a girl his age who attends services there. Chazz serves as a sort of tour guide to Red Hook, walking around with Flik to the neighborhood spots that his grandfather would probably rather he not visit, all while a playful antagonism/flirtation develops between the kids.
What's missing here is Lee's usually strong ability to commit to a dominant story thread amidst all the texture building side arcs regularly peppered into the mix of his films. As a result, Red Hook Summer feels very uneven at times, sporting long passages searching for a larger theme to anchor them. During the first third of the film, there's a never ending stream of r&b pop balladry mucking up the sound mix. There's nothing wrong with the songs in and of themselves but their constant presence end up dampening the onscreen action; I kept wishing I could turn down the volume on just the music, feeling like the work would approach a more realistic and appropriate tone without it.
Eventually, the film does settle into something a bit more consistent. The omnipresent music shifts away from being dominated by pop music, replaced mostly by a score written for the film by Bruce Hornsby(?!). The strongest work here is done by Peters, most effectively in scenes when he's behind the pulpit, dramatically convulsing and raging against inequity and the ills of society. But then the film takes a sharp left turn with a third act reveal that's shockingly off-kilter with the tone that Lee's established for his movie. It's probably the best, most lucid part of the film, but it's so in conflict with the rest of the picture that it comes off like an excerpt from an entirely different, perhaps better, film.
For those in need of a scorecard, here's my final word on the picture: it falls somewhere in between the best and the not so great works in Lee's filmography. Those who find his films interesting even when they're flawed - and film is plenty flawed - will find some things to latch on to here. I found the movie soared unexpectedly in several moments, despite the long periods where it could barely get off the ground.
Red Hook Summer begins its run at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, September 7th. More info available here.
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