Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 121 minutes
It’s hard to pinpoint where, exactly, Spike Lee went wrong in Red Hook Summer, mainly because he takes most of the runtime to even make a truly proper step. If nothing else, his first Brooklyn-set feature since 1998’s He Got Game — and, in some minor way, a follow-up to the director’s 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing — carries a love for the borough which marked Lee’s early career; the area is lovingly, beautifully shot, and a sense of atmosphere manages to permeate even minor scenes of interior discourse. The man still knows Brooklyn like the back of his hand.
That can only go so far, though, when the film’s script doesn’t cohere for the first 90 or so of its (too-long) 120-minute runtime. Worse yet, on a purely formal level, it’s a period in which scenes seemingly start, stop, and are proceeded by sequences cursed with the very same affliction.
What happened, then? Close inspection makes it evident that Lee was trying to take Brooklyn — more specifically, the Red Hook district — and make it a canvas with which he could paint this city’s beating heart. And the work there is, in reflection, actually sort of impressive; still being on the place’s wavelength, he’s got the language, color, and grit down to its finer elements.
All well and good, yet not nearly enough when the meat of the screenplay (co-written with author James McBride) just doesn’t have any significant center. And this is not some labyrinthian plot or heavy social examination, either; when all is said and done — in a film where a whole lot is said and not a whole lot is done — Red Hook Summer functions as a fish-out-of-water story, in which a boy learns the dangers of authority figures. Trouble is, there’s far, far too much being anchored around this simple idea, and only about 30% of it carries any true weight.
The story follows Flik (Jules Brown), a young Atlantian sent to live with his Bishop grandfather, Enoch (Clarke Peters) in the man’s titular residence of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Being a young boy with the typical suburban upbringing, Flik is very much out of his element here; he doesn’t know anybody, and most of those he interacts with are either alcoholics, gang members, or living unfulfilled existences. The only solace comes in the form of a feisty girl, Chazz (Toni Lysaith), with whom Flik manages to attain friendship. Enoch has none of that, however, forcing him to work in the church on the hot summer days.
Red Hook Summer is in trouble right off the bat: Its child actors — i.e., leads who you’re spending nearly the entire film with — often feel awkward and stilted, almost as though they’re really making an effort to simply remember their lines. Making the save (if you can call it that) is Peters. Lee and McBride, to their full credit, shaped a character whose interesting-enough start only reveals itself as the sort of deep and horrifically flawed character which demands a performance of total consistency. Fitting and fortunate that he’d be the center of every effective scene — of which there are, again, not a great deal.
It’s Enoch’s sermons where the movie really shines. There’s a certain (almost rhapsodic) power to the way Lee writes, shoots, and edits the sequences, all of which are aided by the conviction with which Peters delivers lines which take on all new context under close scrutiny. Still: An intended effect — the fact that it’s initially delivered notwithstanding — can’t help but get worn down and diluted when the scenes go on. And go on. And go on.
While some might see it as unprofessional to “count time” during these sequences, it sometimes feels as though these sequences extend for what feels like ten minutes or so. It’s this — i.e., an inability to determine the proper place in which to simply cut — is the underlying problem of Red Hook Summer as a whole. Should a conversation between Bishop Enoch and Chazz’s mother sound interesting, know that their their “little” interaction goes on for so long — at least five minutes, for whatever that’s worth — as to almost become comical. It might not be all his fault, in that case; perhaps the scene would have been tolerable if Bruce Hornsby’s piano score wasn’t tuned to a preposterously high level.
It’s all the more disappointing to see Lee — a filmmaker for whom my occasional hesitation is often overshadowed by true strokes of genius — seemingly forget some of the basic tenets of filmmaking throughout. Reactions are, sometimes, held far too long; shots, occasionally, don’t appear to match at all; and there’s aforementioned misuse of an original score. One of the few times Lee’s contributions felt notable came when reprising his lead character from Do the Right Thing, Mookie, and he’s onscreen for less than a minute.
(The inclusion of his character is fun yet, sadly, just another choice that raises basic questions regarding Lee’s intentions. If nothing else, it puts the ambiguous ending of that film into a whole new context; whether or not you even want that is a different matter.)
For one crucial scene (and its payoff), however, the film becomes something truly special. To give away the specifics (much less basics) of it would be unfair to those with a keen interest in the film, but it’s safe to say this is actually one of the most powerful sequences of the entire year. It’s a moment which, all at once, feels tragic, tense, thrilling, and feels like the formal execution of a master.
It’s here where Red Hook Summer finds its center — and it’s, of course, here where Red Hook Summer also decides to start wrapping up. The falling action from what, basically, serves as the picture’s climax is the sort of dark tune change I was left craving after so many bungled scenes with confused ideas. While it, again, won’t be divulged for the purposes of this review, what ensues here is some of the most consistent filmmaking Lee’s delivered in years. To think, if only it had been an entire film and not the final fourth of a hot mess.
Spike Lee’s heart was in the right place with Red Hook Summer, but good intentions can only take you so far. Sometimes, it’s not nearly far enough.
Red Hook Summer is now in limited release.
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