For those expecting Mookie’s mid-career encore to signify a return to Spike Lee’s roots, “Red Hook Summer” instead surprises — and to some extent delights — as yet another radically unique entry in the director’s iconoclastic oeuvre. Lee’s vibrant coming-of-ager isn’t so much a follow-up to “Do the Right Thing” as a fresh survey of the same geographic turf, following a well-to-do black teen forced to spend the summer with his Bible-thumping grandfather in the Brooklyn projects. Whether auds care to follow is another question, as this long, somewhat unwieldy pic lacks an obvious commercial hook, calling instead for strategic specialty handling.
More than three years after his last bigscreen project, Lee reunites with “Miracle at St. Anna” screenwriter James McBride on a project of smaller physical scope, but greater thematic ambition. Race relations — the focus of “Do the Right Thing,” which pitted Italians against blacks for dramatic effect — are secondary in a portrait of how modern-day African-Americans get by. Here, the contrast is between poverty and privilege, hustling and honest work, feeling adrift or following Christian values.
Working on a budget of less than $1 million, Lee is free to scrap a traditional three-act story and instead focus on situation: Silas Royale, aka “Flik” (newcomer Jules Brown), grew up in Atlanta financially comfortable and cut off from the culture, positive and negative alike, of the black community. Without explanation, his mom (Deadre Azziza) drops Flik with his grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters, a force of nature), who serves as bishop for the local Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church. On the car ride over, Flik is inseparable from his iPad 2, using the built-in video camera to record his experience. The device, like nearly everything Flik takes for granted from his life in Atlanta, has no place in Da Good Bishop’s ascetic lifestyle, and Enoch spends the better part of the movie trying to get Flik to put it aside and engage directly with the people around him.
Defined primarily by his dissatisfied expression and “fro-hawk” hairstyle, Brown doesn’t have to do much more than stand about and gawk at the unfamiliar world into which he’s been thrust. Documenting everything on his iPad, Flik serves as the audience’s proxy: Through his eyes, we see Lee’s take on the 21st-century urban experience.
This view contrasts strongly with the image of inner-city slums that whites — and “Oreos” like Flik (black on the outside, white on the inside) — have been fed. Instead of gang-bangers and drug dealers, the film introduces us to church ladies and other eccentric yet good-natured locals. Yes, the criminal element is present (personified by “Red Tails’?” Nate Parker, a star in the making), but the clean, relatively well-kept Red Hook West Houses are hardly the hopeless cesspool that “Precious,” “The Wire” and other popular entertainment would have us believe.
As Flik interacts with his new neighbors, Lee presents personalities so colorful and richly conveyed that by the end of the film, we feel we’ve known them our entire lives. At the Sunday school where Enoch puts Flik to work, alcoholic Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) drunkenly rants about life’s unfairness. Well-meaning Sister Sharon (Heather Alicia Simms, who delivers a powerful monologue about the responsibility of black parents) is eager for the boy to meet her daughter Chazz (Toni Lysaith, whose charismatic personality more than compensates for Brown’s apparent ambivalence).
As promised, Mookie shows up, still delivering Sal’s Famous Pizza and rightfully proud to have a J-O-B, which he/Lee suggests would solve many of his peers’ problems. Even more encouraging are the words of Mr. Kevin (James Ransone), the neighborhood’s lone white guy, who offers practical solutions for improving the community, such as providing meals and group activities for the neighborhood youth.
The movie meanders, which fans accustomed to Lee’s more conventional work may find frustrating, and yet, there’s a method to its seemingly loose form. One need only listen: Beneath every scene, powerful music enhances the film’s resonance in much the same way its hyper-saturated colors do visually. As the film unfolds, the style changes from hip-hop to a form of rolling piano (composed by Bruce Hornsby) before blooming into full-blown praise music.
This evolution mirrors the increasingly prominent role of Bishop Enoch’s church services. The film includes entire sermons, along with a twist that raises a strong criticism of how certain Christian figures (and perhaps the institution as a whole) have betrayed their congregation. It’s fiery, passionate stuff, at times inelegantly presented, but impossible to ignore.