Spike Lee returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood in Red Hook Summer, opening in select New York theaters on Friday. The drama is his first fiction film since 2008’s Miracle of St. Anna.
The film follows a teenage boy (Jules Brown) from Atlanta, who spends the hot summer months with his preacher grandfather (Clarke Peters) in Brooklyn.
The drama has been drawing controversial reviews among critics, who tend to compare Lee’s latest project with his previous 1989 title, Do the Right Thing. While many skewer the film as a whole, there are a handful of critics that believe in a few redeeming qualities — enough, in fact, to categorize those select reviews as positive.
Red Hook Summer currently holds a lukewarm score of 65 percent on RottenTomatoes, with many of the reviews actually coming from Big Apple critics.
Read below for a sampling of opinions from top critics:
The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney writes that the “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.”
Rooney adds: “It’s another steamy hot Brooklyn summer, but unlike Do the Right Thing two decades back, Spike Lee’s sermonizing new film is too chaotic to tap into that sizzle.”
Stephen Holden from The New York Times disagrees, beginning his review with: “Spike Lee’s messy, meandering, bluntly polemical Red Hook Summer has one crucial ingredient: a raw vitality.”
Though Holden concedes: “Just when the film seems about to become mired in repetition, one of Enoch’s services is interrupted by the dramatic equivalent of a gunshot to the head, as Enoch’s past catches up with him. At this point Red Hook Summer turns into another movie: a feverish tabloid dream crammed with symbolic images that include recurrent shots of the Statue of Liberty and violence that evokes the persecution of Jesus. It all feels furiously dashed off, as if Mr. Lee, who financed the film himself, had run out of money and time.”
Indiewire‘s Tambay A. Obenson writes, “I agonized over this for awhile, and actually almost decided not to even write anything about the film; but I eventually reached a compromise.”
Obenson clarifies, “Maybe it’s just NOT a very good movie, and there’s absolutely NOTHING more to it than that; an unadulterated failure, suggesting that Spike needs to partner up with a much stronger writer, one that will be fearless enough to challenge him during the process, in the interest of producing better films.”
Kyle Smith from New York Post points out that, “Lee doesn’t give us much of a reason for Flik to be in Red Hook except that the filmmaker wants to do yet another look at buppies vs. homies (Lee has always been the former but hates himself for it). The lad is an empty vessel who, apart from mild complaining, has little to do except observe and take videos through his iPad.”
He also writes: “The title of ‘worst Spike Lee movie ever’ is one for which there is much competition, but Red Hook Summer makes a plausible contender. Such a baggy and shapeless waste of celluloid could have been made only by a filmmaker unable to resist his worst impulses.”
Time Magazine‘s Richard Corliss says of the movie, “Focusing on a few blocks in the Red Hook projects and featuring a mix of professional and first-time actors, the movie has the urgent, artless air of a student project with so much on its mind it is constantly in danger of exploding or collapsing.”
Corliss also points out a problem in the film: “The dramaturgy in the first two-thirds of Red Hook Summer is almost criminally naive; and, when the meat of the story is finally served, it has nothing to do with what went before.”
New Yorker‘s David Denby says that the movie: “is a clear failure,” writing that “Yet Lee is getting at things that mystify him. He celebrates the intense joy that religion brings to the community—and seems to be asking at the same time whether repeated, emotionally overwhelming professions of faith don’t reconcile people to stasis and failure. It’s a bitter question, but not many people working in movies would have the courage even to pose it.”
Ian Buckwalter from NPR calls the movie “An absolute mess,” adding that, “In many ways, this is the return to risk-taking narrative filmmaking that Lee fans have been demanding. Red Hook Summer finds the director in an experimental mood, engaging in feats of stylistic daring that might seem like folly on paper, but actually work in practice. He blends digital filmmaking with faded home movie transitions, breaks the fourth wall, and employs some dazzling and graceful camera movement.”
Village Voice‘s Nick Schager says that, “Lee potently expresses, both aesthetically and narratively, a sense of inclusiveness and diversity.”
Schager adds: “In its messy mix of authenticity and awkwardness, bluntness and elegance, the film also proves to be just like its adolescent protagonist: striving, in its own clumsy but earnest way, toward romantic, spiritual, and philosophical maturity.”
New York Daily News‘ Joe Neumaier writes that, “Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer tries, but fails to hook moviegoers with its message.”
Neumaier adds: “The disclosure itself is not the problem. Every artist has the right to pull the rug out from under us. But in this case, there’s a gaping abyss where the floor should be.”
He also notes that, “In an oversight that becomes increasingly troublesome, Lee never explains why Flik’s mother (De’Adre Aziza) sends him away. All we know is that she adores her son, and has reason to despise Enoch.”