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PARK CITY – There’s been much talk in the buildup to Sundance about Spike Lee revisiting, with Red Hook Summer, the guerilla-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 Flick (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. Why this extended visit seemed like a good idea to Flick’s mother (De’Adre Aziza) is a mystery given her icy-cold rapport with the Bishop.
Conscripted to go help fix up the under-attended church, Flick finds some salvation in his friendship with feisty young congregation member Chazz (Tony Lysaith). Her mother (Heather Alicia Simms) is a church trustee who has long been fishing for a marriage proposal from the evasive Bishop Enoch.
As Flick 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; the decimation of African American neighborhoods by drugs, crime and AIDS; street gangs; impotent police; unemployment; income inequality; healthcare; 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 – primarily Bruce Hornsby’s plonking piano pieces, Judith Hill’s soul vocals and some traditional spirituals – 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 Flick’s iPad.
Peters and one or two others in the cast do creditable work, notably Nate Parker as a local gang leader. (Among the ensemble, there’s a brief appearance from Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a cop, and a handful of alumni from the Broadway production of Passing Strange, which Lee captured on film.) 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.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Cast: Clarke Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, Nate Parker, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Heather Alicia Simms, Colman Domingo, De’Adre Aziza, Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Spike Lee, James McBride
Producer: Spike Lee
Director of photography: Kerwin Devonish
Production designer: Sarah Frank
Music: Bruce Hornsby, Judith Hill
Costume designer: ESosa
Editor: Hye Mee Na
No rating, 130 minutes.
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