2012. The number. Another summer? Sort of. Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer was supposed to be a return to his roots, busting out of a broken Hollywood system that hadn’t greenlit one of his films in more than four years. Returning to the Brooklyn streets he’s chronicled so often and with such idiosyncratic grandeur, Lee even brought back Mookie to deliver the pizza.
Too bad the movie is such a mess.
Shot on the fly over 18 days with a crew recruited from Lee’s NYU classes, Red Hook Summer is a legitimate underground operation. Co-written with neighborhood buddy James McBride (who was also responsible for Lee’s miserable Miracle at St. Anna), it’s at the very least a time capsule of urban life right now, with enough loving details and strange nuances, you could very well spend the first hour or so thinking this is the kind of picture they just don’t make anymore.
Jules Brown stars as Silas Royale, a petulant pre-teen buppie from upscale Atlanta who prefers to be called Flik. His mother sends him to live in the Red Hook projects for the summer with his churchy grandpa—Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (The Wire’s Clarke Peters)—in Spartan quarters lacking even a television, confounding to a young man who views the world through his iPad 2. Da Good Bishop is quite a character, clinging to the word of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in nearly every utterance. He runs a collapsing storefront church called Lil Peace of Heaven and never misses out on a chance to proselytize during casual conversation. The neighborhood is shrinking; you’ve got the gangs on one side and gentrification on the other, and, if nothing else, Red Hook Summer presents a community slowly being squeezed out of house and home.
We’re never told exactly why Flik’s mom sent her well-off child to go live in the projects for three months, but obviously, Flik doesn’t take kindly to the old man’s harsh regiments. Soon, however, Flik gets friendly with the young Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), which might be one of the awesomest Lee monikers ever coined. The two dither and flirt their way around the first blush of puppy-love, sneaking snack food from the church rectory and tracing one another’s names into wet cement. This actually gets Flik out of the house and away from his electronic devices, which I suppose I would consider a positive development, were it not for Chazz’s fanatical devotion to Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks.
The first acts of Red Hook Summer have a lackadaisical, endearingly unassuming quality. Characters wander in and spout a few talking points about poverty and current events, with Heather Simms often dropping by as Chazz’s mom, laying out a didactic monologue or two about child-rearing designed to earn applause from audiences. Bruce Hornsby’s score (yes, that Bruce Hornsby) hammers home plaintive piano chords that sometimes threaten to drown out conversations, but the colors pop, and by this point, I doubt Lee is even capable of shooting a scene that isn’t visually gripping. Da Good Bishop’s sermons take up an unwieldy amount of screen time, and they’re strangely enthralling.
Then something happens. For a while, it seemed like Red Hook Summer was going to be Lee’s Gran Torino, where he gets to be all crotchety and tell those kids to put away their goddamn Apple products and get off his lawn. But there are surprising plot twists, and then there is batshit crazy. Red Hook Summer goes batshit crazy. The movie gets ugly and violent real fast, almost completely disengaging from Flik’s point of view. Granted, the kid can’t act his way out of a paper bag, and I should be happy that the rest of the movie falls upon a performer as fine as Clarke Peters, but I still cannot fathom whatever point Lee’s trying to make here, or why he would derail his not-bad summer idyll with such a nuclear bomb.
The film has been shorn of 15 or so minutes since its Sundance premiere. Interestingly enough, a lot of the scenes left on the cutting-room floor involved Lee reprising his role of Mookie from Do The Right Thing. Probably because Mookie would have thrown a trash can at the screen.