Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Red Hook Summer
A Bamboozled Rope-A-Dope Special In Spike Lee’s Red Hook

Toni Lysaith as Chazz, Clarke Peters as Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse and Jules Brown as Flik in "Red Hook Summer",
a drama directed by Spike Lee. 
David Lee/ Variance Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tense, blistering and powerful, Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” is a thought-provoking and important film.  With rich color, passion and a soul that bleeds through the screen Mr. Lee’s coming-of-age drama delivers a rope-a-dope stomach punch not unlike that seen in some of the director’s vintage work.

Taking place over a hot summer in the housing projects of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the James McBride-Spike Lee-scripted film follows Flik (first-time film acting by Jules Brown), a sullen, precocious boy from Atlanta visiting Red Hook to spend the summer with his grandfather Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters, excellent here.)  Flik’s mother Colleen (De’Adre Aziza) says nary a word to her father when she drops her son off with him.  In the middle of a troubled yet beautiful Red Hook stand pillars of a holy trinity: the black church, gentrification, and a Bloods gang run by Box (Nate Parker), who minds his own business unless someone else doesn’t mind theirs.  Flik and Red Hook local Chazz (newcomer Toni Lysaith) venture daringly between these worlds.  Flik questions the notion of Jesus being a white man.  Chazz tests the boundaries of an ever-changing neighborhood and makes her mark.  Bishop Enoch, a charismatic, likable preacher who delivers sermons on the mount in the film's long but exhilarating sequences, sometimes doesn’t like himself but the Word of the Good Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is his number one best friend forever.

What the wandering but finally exacting “Red Hook Summer” does – and that’s many things – include stir, aggravate, celebrate and shout loudly from its proud, complex and vibrant mountaintop – is raise critical questions about survival, existence and control of the heart and mind.  What guides our beliefs?  Who and what defines our identity?  What is “tradition” and what does it mean?  Is it correct?  Who and what do we believe in?  The characters in Mr. Lee's Brooklyn try to claim and mark precious territory in various ways but you get the feeling it is futile.  “I know you live in the projects!”, a white resident shouts during the film.  You expect the resident to use a racially offensive term yet the only person who does is Deacon Zee (the great actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a black man with arrested speech and wise insights amidst an alcohol problem.  Chazz declares that she wants to leave Red Hook but doesn’t know what those “work people” in Manhattan – an island right next door but seemingly a world away – are doing.  Meanwhile, Flik has had it with Red Hook.  Like Ray Charles he has Georgia on his mind. 

Religion is a taboo, third-rail subject in many places, and the black church is arguably the strongest institution black people have in America, and Mr. Lee explores the deep roots of the relationship between blacks and the Church in an honest, intimate way. The director has touched on this tricky terrain before (“Do The Right Thing”, “Jungle Fever”, “Malcolm X”, “He Got Game”) and throughout “Red Hook Summer” the iconography Mr. Lee uses to illustrate, provoke and register his own skepticism and contempt of respected institutions and blind acceptance is reinstituted in almost every shot.  Some shots from the aforementioned films return here, remaining fresh and dynamic, further enlivened by Kerwin Devonish’s bright, pulsing cinematography and Sarah Frank’s tidy production design, particularly the Red Hook church in which "Da Good Bishop" Enoch preaches, which happens to have been founded by Mr. McBride’s parents.  Hye Mee Na, Mr. Lee's New York University film class student, edited "Red Hook Summer" and she does so impressively, giving us jagged, vibrant and fluid portraits of a neighborhood percolating with life.

Just as strong is the director’s feel for Red Hook, an integral character of its own that is lauded and loved in an affectionate, uplifting way.  Speaking of Red Hook: is the land on which its people stand stable or insecure?  “Red Hook Summer” is a lesson but also a lament: the people who love Red Hook are committed to it but blinded to the reality that the world and the ground beneath their feet is changing and sinking all at once.  The lessons within the film are learned bluntly and the lies behind them are told.  Technology highlights the gulf between young and old, something that the mischievous Flik and many young and older people today hide behind, and denial isn’t just a river in Africa.  Generations come of age in the film though in completely different ways.  Money is fantasy, illusory and a shell game hustle in Red Hook.  The film hides, and a lot of people hide in plain sight as well.  Throughout "Red Hook Summer" people are hiding from themselves and cold reality.

Mr. Lee has always been a filmmaker whose voice, vision and endeavor enable him to be fearless and boundless in his storytelling approach.  He has a multiplicity of ideas and boldly tackles if not always successfully executes all of them.  His sheer ambition and conviction to bring them to the big screen however, is admirable.  No Spike Lee Joint is ever about one story, and the director’s "Chronicles of Brooklyn" series of films is proof of this.  None of Mr. Lee’s characters are perfect; if you want immaculate you had better absorb a Disney movie: as Wesley Snipes’ character in “Jungle Fever” once stated, “I've always hated Walt Disney movies.” 

Nothing about “Red Hook Summer”, even in its most tranquil moments, is “easy” or goes down easy.  The movie has a tension, force, discomfort and sometimes shrill lecture that’s both relentless and necessary, making some of its events even more profound and alarming.  In some of the film’s grandest moments (featuring excellent organ playing from Jonathan Batiste) you feel you are literally in church.  There’s little room to exhale, and the texture of “Red Hook Summer” is so immediate and vivid it's almost overwhelming.

Even so, I expected even more incendiary and explosive revelations from “Red Hook Summer” and while those expectations aren’t completely satisfied, Mr. Lee’s drama is gripping, troubling and undeniably resolute about its goals.  Where some have criticized Mr. Lee by citing a perceived difficulty in ending his films if there’s any complaint at all about this effective movie it’s that it took too long to get to its conclusion.  That said, Judith Hill’s evocative and beautiful songs and Bruce Hornsby’s solemn score and additional source music and brilliant spirituals are worth the journey and wait, accompanying this film mostly very well. 

Mr. Lee shot "Red Hook Summer" in 19 days in a ten-block area of Red Hook and with his own money: truly independently and maybe as a rebuke of the Hollywood studio system he has often criticized with detailed validity.  In some ways the film is autobiographical; Mr. Lee, an Atlanta-born Morehouse graduate, spent some time in Red Hook growing up, and his late grandmother Zimmie is mentioned by name during the film.  The director also has an ephemeral appearance as Mookie, and he still works for Sal's Famous Pizzeria after 23 years.

In a way "Red Hook Summer" is like "The Wizard Of Oz": there's a resplendence, light and magic in it that is infectious.  In the director's Red Hook there truly is no place like home, and Dorothy's red shoes are replaced by Flik's Nikes.  But where exactly is home?  And what of its foundations?  Those who prematurely leave the theater or condemn "Red Hook Summer" may well take issue with Mr. Lee's pointed alerts at racial language and similar institutionalizations and targeting of religion and faith amidst the secular.  

There’s an especially impactful frame in “Red Hook Summer” in which a character looks at us and warns us.  A mild visual effect punctuates this jarring instant as if an awakening.  This event and others have stayed with me in a film that otherwise moves procedurally from editorial statement to editorial statement.  “Red Hook Summer” is less about plot and more about essence – the essence and spirit of its people, traditions and truths – some which are bitter pills to swallow and digest.  When the rug of comfort is pulled it’s like a hocus-pocus magic trick or a strange exorcism performed by three wise men.  There's no question that "Red Hook Summer" is timely, noteworthy, will stir discussion and polarize some audiences.  As ever that means that Mr. Lee has done his job, and in his first dramatic feature film in four years, he succeeds mightily.

Also with: Heather Alicia Simms, Kimberly Hébert-Gregory, Colman Domingo, Steve Henderson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Samantha Ivers, Tracy Camilla Johns, James Ransone, Al Palagonia.

"Red Hook Summer" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief violence, language and a disturbing situation.  The film's running time is two hours and one minute.  The film is playing in New York City; will expand its release to New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore and many more cities over the coming weeks of August and September.

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