“Hollywood didn’t want to make this movie…There are no super heroes, no capes, no s___ blowin’ up…”
Immediately before the 10pm showing Red Hook Summer, director Spike Lee appeared before the sold out crowd to speak briefly about premiering the latest installment of his Chronicles of Brooklyn. The mellow intensity that helped make him one of New York’s living treasures was on full display as he bantered with the audience about what neighborhood they were from and how important it was that those in attendance spread the word about the film. The intimate vibe in the Sharp Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music fit Lee’s style than a Los Angeles red carpet event. And by the time he said his ‘Thank you’s’ and ‘Goodbye’s,’ everyone had settled in for an experience that they’ve come to expect from Brooklyn’s most prolific filmmaker.
Red Hook Summer proves a worthy addition to Lee’s body of work. Unconventional, gritty, and slyly whimsical, Red Hook Summer tells the story of a 13-year-old Atlanta boy’s summer vacation in Brooklyn with his estranged grandfather. The dynamic between Flik and Bishop Enoch Rouse reflects the seemingly unbridgeable rift seen among generations of black men. Flik’s godless middle-class upbringing clashes with Enoch’s pious blue-collar life down to the smallest glance. And the respective honesty with which they’ve come by their character philosophies elicits hope that the two of them can build a familial bond by surviving together in the wilderness of one of Brooklyn’s roughest neighborhoods.
More remarkable than Lee’s depiction of that relationship, though, are the stellar individual performances, specifically by Clarke Peters, who plays Enoch Rouse, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who plays Deacon Zee. Peters, best known for the role of Lester Freamon in The Wire, shed his understated wisdom from that series in exchange for bold charisma with seemingly no effort. In his several scenes from behind the pulpit, Peters takes an intoxicating command that might make even the most devout atheist question their life choice. Conversely, Deacon Zee’s alcohol-induced philosophizing provides comic relief with arresting resolve. A familiar face in Spike Lee’s casts since the mid-90s, Byrd’s theatrical flare has made him a memorable character actor that all Spike joint fans celebrate. And no Byrd character to date has been more impressive than Deacon Zee.
Even the lesser-known actors contributed well to Spike Lee’s vision. Jules Brown, as Flik, helps build a strong nucleus to the film alongside fellow newcomer Toni Lysaith, the delicately precocious Chazz. Their limited onscreen experience serves them well as they exhibit the awkward chemistry characteristic of boy-girl tween relationship. Chazz and Flik’s naïveté and fiery attitudes remind the audience of that crucial point of maturation where innocence rapidly approaches its twilight, especially among children of the inner city. And as a theme, that turning point imbues the entire film, whether witnessing the kids’ friendship, Bishop Enoch’s personal journey, or even the socio-economic shift happening in Red Hook (as with many other historically poor Brooklyn neighborhoods).
But with Spike Lee’s trademark execution of such rich themes will come film critics’ trademark negativity. Film mavens will probably focus on the technical flaws of the final cut of the film, as they have wont to do since She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. However, the story of Red Hook Summer prevails over questions of what could have been done better. The risks that Lee takes to bring his vision to life, in all of his films, prove worthwhile as different cameras, lighting, and use of color continue to reflect the multilayered world that he wants to show the audience, a world that we know exists but often fail to see.
Red Hook Summer is also full of fun surprises that will excite diehard Spike Lee joint fans. A veritable who’s who of Lee’s past, the supporting cast will remind faithful audiences of how the accent of smaller roles has been integral to what makes his films special. Red Hook Summer also features some supporting cast overlap from HBO’s The Wire, a nice touch considering the likelihood of common viewership.
And Spike Lee’s fifth installment of his Chronicles of Brooklyn has an even deeper parallel to David Simon’s chronicles of Baltimore. Critically recognized as one of the weaker seasons of The Wire, season 5 is crucial to the body of work that attempted to convey the many facets of interconnectivity in the city. And with Red Hook Summer, a seemingly stark departure from She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Crooklyn, and Clockers, Spike Lee continues to address new themes that concern the spirit and future of the borough he calls home. This time, Lee gave focus to gentrification in a way that he never had before, making Red Hook Summer an important chapter in his collection, regardless of critical response.
That Spike Lee financed the movie without the help of a Hollywood studio says just as much about his passion for telling unconventional stories as it does the lack of sophistication among the gatekeepers with whom Spike has clashed for the past 3 decades. Thankfully, visionaries like Lee continue to buck the system to bring their stories to life and into a world that continues to appreciate them.