Spike Lee's 'Red Hook Summer' Smolders
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Now about to enter his fourth decade as a filmmaker, Spike Lee is still one of the most provocative, engaging, surprising and sometimes infuriating writer-director-performers in film. Even when making a movie within an ostensibly commercial genre, as with his last commercial hit, 2006's "Inside Man," his movies sprawl messily outside the boundaries of narrative, the better to encompass his own often not terribly well-thought-out but always passionately felt and skillfully articulated observations and pronouncements on life in America, particularly life in black America. His discursive and sometimes overheated styles of filmmaking and polemicizing sometimes make a very awkward fit with his material. While it worked well in "Inside Man" in a kind of "Dog Day Afternoon"-crossed-with-Godard way, it fell rather fascinatingly flat with his subsequent 2008 World War II story, "Miracle at St. Anna."
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"Red Hook Summer" is Lee's latest fiction feature. It arrives between several documentaries, one picture for HBO, and the preproduction for his remake of the Korean revenge thriller and fan-boy fave "Oldboy," so in a sense it almost feels like a career blip for the very busy director. It could be called a return to his indie roots, only Lee's voice is so distinctive, whether he's working with low budgets or larger ones, that it doesn't really register as anything but a Spike Lee "joint." What it is a definite return to is raw, seemingly minimally staged, New York moviemaking, in the mode of his early Brooklyn-shot-and-set feature "She's Gotta Have It."
The premise is as simple as its title: An early adolescent who calls himself Flik (Jules Brown) is dropped off, for reasons that are never entirely spelled out, to live with his grandfather, a Baptist "bishop" (Clarke Peters), at a housing project in the Brooklyn working-class neighborhood of Red Hook. Flik's a smart kid, digitally plugged in -- he is as inseparable from his iPad as Radio Raheem was from his boom box in Lee's classic "Do the Right Thing" -- but a little on the surly side. He doesn't know what he's doing in New York when he could be chilling with his mom in Atlanta, and he doesn't like helping out his pious preacher granddad at his ramshackle church, the deacon of which (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is a limping old rummy who fancies himself a stock market oracle, among other things. Somewhat more menacing are the dressed-in-red hoods at the end of a basketball court that's a semi-shrine to Knick Carmelo Anthony, and somewhat more welcoming, taunting, and confusing is the feisty teen girl Chazz (Toni Lysaith) with whom Flik forms a reluctant, then sweet, alliance. These characters and others, and the so-hot-they-might-melt-before-your-eyes surfaces of the streets and the walls, with a very occasional and welcome view of an open sky (captured in digital video textures that give the colors a juicy, uncomfortable saturation), are pretty much all the film is for the first hour and 20 minutes or so.
The characters hold forth not just on their own dreams, but the state of the economy, what a black president has and has not changed, and more. It's only late in the film that a galvanic story element is introduced -- you'll know it's coming when Lee breaks out his trademark dolly shot that makes a walking character seem to be floating above the surface of the floor. Then "Red Hook Summer" turns into a disquieting consideration of sin and guilt and forgiveness. And even then it maintains its own idiosyncratic rhythm.
There's one tracking shot near the end of the film in which a central character is compelled to make a blood-soaked walk of shame back to the projects, and Lee's camera just follows the character as others gawk, the gospel song on the soundtrack pulsating away. "Think this through with me," the filmmaker seems to be saying. (Although I doubt there's an actual Grateful Dead allusion in that sentiment ... but you never know: The movie was scored by Bruce Hornsby, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist who did play with a late incarnation of the Dead.) There aren't many moviemakers out there who ever bother to make this invitation.
Lee's generosity of course walks hand in hand with his fondness to make pronouncements, but by the end of the film it's clear that he's so in some kind of strange love with his characters and their environment that it's only natural he give them the last word in some sense. Not that he doesn't get a shot in from that end, either; he does, in fact, appear in the film, reprising his role as pizza delivery guy Mookie from "Do the Right Thing."
"Red Hook Summer" isn't a smooth slow jam -- the awkwardness of the younger performers can be as confounding as it can be charming, and there's frequently a sense of the film flaunting its rawness self-consciously -- but one doesn't go to Spike Lee pictures in order to solicit a complacent experience anyway.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.