[8 January 2013]
Spike Lee’s latest “Chronicles of Brooklyn” entry ,Red Hook Summer depicts a sometimes combustible culture clash between a middle-class Atlanta youth and his fire-and-brimstone preacher grandaddy or, frankly, a tug-of-war between Tyler Perry’s churchy, Southern-bred Christian devotees and post-civil rights black boho culture, the sort exemplified by literary figures like Greg Tate or Toure and organizations like New York’s own Black Rock Coalition.
When Flik Royale (a typically staccato name from the Spike Lee dictionary) arrives in Brooklyn’s seedy Red Hook district fresh from his bourgie neighborhood in Atlanta, the new black Canaan, his derision for his new surroundings – and the inhabitants – is palpable. Played by newcomer Jules Brown, Flik comes off as a bratty curmudgeon and you may want to backhand him at first. He doesn’t believe in the Almighty, follows a vegan diet, and oddly, his attire and haircut smell of a Technicolor-bright late ‘80s / early ‘90s Kid ‘n Play urban vibe. Remember Cliff Huxtable’s loud sweaters?
Anyhow, Flik wastes no time fussing with his grandfather, the relentless Bishop Enoch Rouse (a masterful Clarke Peters, one of three alums of The Wire present). Flik, who wields an iPad like Captain America’s shield, would rather be anywhere else, and we’re never told why he needs to spend the summer in Brooklyn, but it may be nothing more than his mother’s desire to connect her son to a cultural demimonde she’s left behind. To that end, Flik’s insolent snobbery exemplifies historic class divisions within the African-American community, troubled waters which Lee has swum in before.
Sad to say that Brown, while an engaging presence – and his Flik becomes less one-note later on – is often stiff in his emoting, as if reading from cards, and I hope this student of a performing arts high school will grow as an actor. His foil – and potential girlfriend – is Chazz Morningstar, a vibrant sistuh whose mother has befriended Enoch. Portrayed by another novice thespian, Toni Lysaith, she’s a plucky loudmouth that gleefully punctures Flik’s nouveau riche-superior bubble. Indeed, if Brown seems a tad wooden in some of his scenes, Lysaith is his polar opposite, sometimes over the top in her amusing histrionics. Lee has a knack for uncovering sparkling new talent, as evidenced by his presciently cast Do the Right Thing, so perhaps these youngsters may blossom in the future.
Some consider Red Hook Summer – co-written and produced by memoirist James McBride - a putative sequel to Do the Right Thing, and Lee himself re-appears as the pizza-schlepping militant Mookie, aged with a salt-and-pepper beard and paunchier frame. Mookie has very little dialogue, and oddly enough, what little he utters is unintelligible gibberish, and I can’t figure what Spike’s trying to suggest. Of course, Red Hook is a separate ‘hood from the director’s home turf of Bed-Stuy, but both belong to Brooklyn’s slowly-vanishing grittier side, a thousand light years from the Park Slope Food Co-Op, a storied BoBo haven, or the $12 million yellow 11-bedroom Brooklyn Heights townhouse where Truman Capote wrote his most renowned works.
Both stories present a transformative summer in a community either in flux, or one that has undergone change in the recent past. Mookie appears in each, but is relegated to walk-ons in the later film, still carting pies door-to-door in his delivery garb, which implies that the tragic racial conflagration which erupts in Do the Right Thing hasn’t altered his circumstances in any tangible way. The more things change, the more they remain the same?
An emotional explosion occurs in Red Hook Summer as well, though a less predictable one, and it also shatters this similarly close-knit enclave, without smashed windows or trash cans set ablaze. Still, Spike clearly wants to remind us of “Right Thing”—otherwise why include that film’s main protagonist?—and the two movies are appropriate companion pieces, even if Do The Right Thing presents disparate ethnic/racial groups on the knife’s edge of turmoil while “Hook” casts its lens on an insular, almost exclusively African-American claque.
This is the magnificent Clarke Peters’ first go-round with Spike Lee, and fans of The Wire or Treme shouldn’t miss it. His Enoch Rouse is granted plenty of time at the pulpit, and Peters delivers the goods, just like the actor’s Chief Lambreaux in the New Orleans-set series. Both men are dead stubborn, and both refuse to give up on their respective neighborhoods. Bishop Rouse ‘performs’ in a church, but he’s no less theatrical than the Chief. So convincing is his moral rectitude that you’ll gasp when the walls come tumbling down.
Ultimately, metamorphosis is at the heart of Red Hook Summer; a coming-of-age for Flik – a theme all too common to films set during our warmest season, revelations about his righteous grandfather, and brief references to socieconomic changes to Red Hook, i. e., the opening of a massive IKEA store and the curious siting of a new passenger ship terminal, to service the Queen Mary 2, last of the grand transatlantic liners. Red Hook’s evolution is also explored in D.W Young’s 2008 documentary A Hole In a Fence, and I’m betting that Lee’s seen it.
His tete-a-tetes with Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding, Lee has mellowed with age, and Red Hook Summer is not the abrasive polemical assault that Do the Right Thing was. It’s about the same length, however, clocking in at just over two hours, but trimming 15 or so minutes wouldn’t do any damage. I also wish Spike had excised – or at least toned down – the use of extra-diegetic music during the heavier sequences. Let the words stand on their own, unadorned.
If you should pick up this DVD, please ignore the inaccurate synopsis on the rear of the box, which confuses the film’s dramatic chronology while ignoring the melodramatic occurrences of the second and third acts. Extras include the inevitable director’s commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a music video, and a teaser. The untitled making-of short is a fly-on-the-wall piece which mostly eavesdrops on the movie shoot, providing a more intimate look at the filmmaking process than many, and a gentle jazz piano score plays throughout. I’ll admit I was initially distracted, but it quickly drew me in.
Red Hook Summer was sadly ignored by filmgoers – those who could find it—in a miniscule theatrical release last August, and while I’d never hold it up with Lee’s flamboyantly passionate earlier movies, it’s a credible if unsurprising addition to his canon, and I credit him for going full steam with personal projects, especially when the studios won’t touch them. To a certain extent, Hollywood’s overweening reliance on loud, CGI-driven rides has forced directors like Lee and Paul Schrader into the arthouse ghetto, and he can only emerge from that when he helms a commercial Denzel Washington thriller like Inside Man, a perfectly decent film, by the way, but one perhaps made out of career necessity.
Red Hook Summer, love it or hate it, is a shoestring indie production shot over 19 days. Lee’s friend and fellow New Yorker Marty Scorsese once asked why a director blessed with Hollywood riches couldn’t follow a big-budget film with a small production and switch back and forth. By design or happenstance, Spike Lee seems to be doing just that.