*Spike Lee has been the preeminent director of films geared toward African American audiences for almost 30 years and we’ve come to expect a certain level of Lee’s signature craftsmanship ever since his very first big screen release, “She’s Gotta Have It.” His “40 Acres and a Mule” production company has rolled out over 35 films since 1983.
Recently I was invited down to the Directors Guild of America theater in Manhattan on 57th st to a screening of Lee’s most recent offering, “Red Hook Summer.”
It may be one of his most highly anticipated films in recent memory as it continues on his catalog of films that are based in Brooklyn. It tells the tale of a young man named Flik Royale, played by Jules Brown, whose mother sends him to spend the summer with his grandfather the good Bishop Enoch Rouse, played by Clarke Peters, in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. Flik is 13 years old and is meeting his grandfather for the very first time. The two immediately begin falling out, as was to be expected, over Bishop Enoch’s insistence upon making Flik a devout Christian. Bishop Enoch, not unlike many old school grandfathers, doesn’t believe that Flik should be allowed to simply run free of his own accord. He puts Flik to work down at the Lil’ Peace of Heaven Church to help prepare for the upcoming Seniors’ Day.
It is there he meets Deacon Zee, played magnificently by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a tragic yet comical drunk who is also Bishop Enoch’s right hand man. He also meets his antagonist/childhood sweetheart in the form of Chazz Morningstarr, played by Toni Lysaith. She and Flik are together through out the film and, had one not been paying attention, you would almost think “Red Hook Summer” was going to be a relatively light-hearted coming of age story. The common themes are all there for one to make that assumption: a stubborn yet brilliant child, a stern yet loving disciplinarian, a free spirited female companion and a dangerous potential adversary in the gang leader Box, played by Nate Parker.
But as the film progresses we begin to realize that, while there may indeed be elements of a coming of age story in the film, it’s really a story of deception, abuse of power, secrets and revelations. The audience is given hints throughout the film but it all comes to a climatic and masterfully acted crescendo in the pulpit. That’s when all of those hints come together in the mind’s eye. We now know why Bishop Enoch’s daughter Colleen Royale, played by De’Adre Aziza, showed great concern when initially dropping her only child of at her father’s door step, and why it took her 13 years to do so.
I will say that it is a film worth seeing and it’s all too disgustingly real, with characters that seemed very familiar to me. Bishop Enoch’s initial rigidity with dealing with young Flik seemed like the right thing to do in my eyes because it struck a familiar cord with in me. I initially found myself sympathizing with Bishop Enoch and wishing the headstrong Flik would get his act together. But little did I know that the individual that needed to come clean was the “good” Bishop? Can’t forget to give a shout out to Johnathan Batiste for his performance of Da Organist TK. Funny, funny, funnier with every church scene as he played the organ and ad-libbed in true church organist fashion. The kids, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith did Ok but their chemistry and timing seemed to be a bit off. But I still think they performed well considering this was their first feature film. I’ll give them a C+.
The film’s zenith came in true Spike fashion. After all, I thought shortly after digesting “Red Hook Summer”, when has Spike Lee ever let us off easy when it comes to holding a mirror up to black culture?
The dialogue reflects a sign of the times approach which Spike Lee often employs. One in which the characters speak of times and circumstances that reflect the black mindset of some films Spike has his hand in. It is a particular touch of craftsmanship that I enjoyed before, and I enjoy it still. The Motion Picture Association gave the film an R rating because of “a disturbing situation”. But what is actually disturbing is that anyone living today might deem this film unnecessary. Those that do are in extreme denial. Is this a blockbuster? No, but it is a film worth making and it cuts straight to the heart of a very current matter. I would say this film is a success on artistic merit and subject matter alone.
“Red Hook Summer” opened on August 10 in select theaters in the New York area and will premiere nationwide on August 24. I cannot honestly sit here and tell you that this film is for everyone. You have to be ready to deal with a scene that is somewhat unsettling, but it was needed to hammer down the film’s reality. Overall I would give “Red Hook Summer” a B- on subject matter, dialogue, plot twist and the script.