Veteran director Spike Lee’s new movie Red Hook Summer is (A): A coming-of-age story about a young, black, middle-class boy from Atlanta who calls himself Flik; (B): Lee’s thrashing of black folks about their social and cultural shortcomings or (C): Lee’s campaign platform and speech were he to run for public office. No matter what viewers might think of Red Hook Summer, the film is all three, as well as vintage Lee.
I dodged the rain to see this movie August 26 because I have been supporting Lee since I saw his first feature length film during the weekend in August 1986 when my father died, after a short 3-1/2 weeks of suffering from lung cancer. That movie was She’s Gotta Have It, and at that time was playing in limited release at the Fine Arts Theatre. Because Lee didn’t have major Hollywood backing, Red Hook Summer is also only playing in limited release in Chicago. Flik can’t seem to tear away from his iPad for a minute, and he is deposited at his grandfather’s doorstep in the Red Hook housing projects inNew York’s Brooklyn neighborhood by his mother, who is also estranged from the grandfather. How a woman could just drop her son off with her father—one with whom she barely has contact—is beyond me. Flik doesn’t want to be there, and his mother doesn’t even come into the grandfather’s home before going to catch her return flight to Atlanta. The grandfather, whose name is Do Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, is head of the local Little Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook. The Bishop is played by Clark Peters of Treme and The Wire fame. He’s a Bible-thumping, verse reading preacher, but he is also harboring a secret that will come out before the movie ends. His secret is among the many themes highlighted in Red Hook Summer, along with poverty, health care disparities, drug dealing, gang banging, nihilism and the scourges of social media.
And just as there are classic Lee situations that we expect from him, as he tells his “Brooklyn” story, there are also familiar faces in Red Hook Summer. Tracy Camilla Johns of She’s Gotta Have It fame plays Sister Darling in scenes that bring to mind Roger Guenveur Smith’s Smiley character from Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who has appeared in many Lee films, plays Deacon Zee. He seems to channel Ossie Davis’ role of DA Mayor from Do the Right Thing. When he gets his fill of “Jesus juice,” he is bent on delivering diatribes against Pres. Barack Hussein Obama, Wall Street and other demonstrated ills of the black community.
Isiah Whitlock, Jr., plays a detective, as he did in Lee’s 25th Hour. And, of course, Lee reprises his pizza delivery guy role, but now he’s “Mr.” Mookie.
But newcomers Brown and Toni Lysaith, as Chazz Morningstar who befriends Flik, give good performances. It is her job to show Flik around the neighborhood and guide him at the church. He has to clean the church daily, at the command of the Bishop, in anticipation of a church reunion of past members. Chazz suffers from asthma, and she boasts that she and her single mother live in the same apartment as the great Knicks basketball player Carmelo Anthony. (Oh, I forgot to mention that basketball is also prominent in this movie).
The movie’s dramatic church scene where the Bishop is called out for his past sins is one of the movie’s better sequences. The consequences of his sins catch up with him in a brutal way, and another issue that is routinely covered up in some black families comes to the forefront.
While the movie is classic Lee, some may tire of seeing the same story. But the issues that beset the black community are still relevant, and Lee is the one to unabashedly lay it all on the table. However, it is nice to see Flik open up to new ideas, as we see black youth doing normal things during a summer in urban America—something that audience members can count on Lee to deliver time after time.
Red Hook Summer is now in theaters.