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There’s been much talk in the buildup to Sundance about Spike Lee revisiting, with Red Hook Summer, the guerrilla-style independent filmmaking terrain where he began. But this strange, unruly beast of a movie — self-financed and shot in three weeks on a meager budget — appears to have been less of a liberation than a minefield for the director, encouraging him to indulge his weakness for bombastic bloat.
In the loosest possible sense, this is a companion piece to Do the Right Thing, set in another Brooklyn neighborhood where Mookie, Lee’s character from that 1989 breakthrough, is still delivering Sal’s Famous Pizzas more than 20 years later. The far more disciplined earlier film simmered with tensions that erupted in the explosive final act. But Lee’s latest rambles through almost two hours of unfocused drama, burdened with endless didactic editorializing, before lurching out of nowhere into ugly revelations and violence.
While the film is thematically confused, at heart it’s a coming-of-age story about Flik (Jules Brown). A preteen private-school student, he is sent against his wishes from his comfortable Atlanta home to spend the summer in a Red Hook housing project with the grandfather he’s never met. That would be Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), a fulminating Baptist preacher determined to deliver the Lord to his sullen grandson.
As Flik gets to know the neighborhood, documenting his discoveries on his iPad, Lee and co-screenwriter James McBride stuff talking points into the mouths of their characters. These include encroaching gentrification; street gangs; impotent police; unemployment; income inequality; health care; the elation of seeing a black man elected president; and the disillusionment over the promised change that never materialized.
Some of this is embedded in the impassioned sermons of Bishop Enoch, delivered by the remarkable Peters with an internal fire that blows everyone else off the screen. But elsewhere, the preachy agenda is inserted far less seamlessly.
The film takes a head-spinning narrative turn when a secret from Enoch’s past surfaces during Sunday service. But the complete absence of any kind of foreshadowing makes this switch to a more disturbing consideration of sin and redemption seem like part of another movie, not an organic continuation of what’s come before.
Stylistically, this is not Lee’s most coherent work. He lays high-volume music under almost every scene. Together with the tendency to shout much of the dialogue, this makes the film strident and cacophonous. Having scenes run on and on doesn’t help alleviate the bludgeoning effect, though some further adjustment of the sound mix might help. While deep affection for the neighborhood is evident, the visuals are a mixed bag. Inconsistencies of light and texture are only sometimes justified by switching to the view field of Flik’s iPad.
Peters and one or two others in the cast do creditable work, notably Nate Parker as a local gang leader. But the performances generally lean toward the self-conscious and shrill. If the overall result weren’t so messy, one might almost wonder if Lee weren’t directing his actors to play it broadly as a dig at Tyler Perry.
Cast Clarke Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, Nate Parker
Director Spike Lee
No MPAA rating, 130 minutes
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