Spike Lee is such a confident filmmaker that when one of his movies doesn't quite work, you almost wonder if it's your fault for not getting it. Secure in his talent for sweeping emotions and powerful visuals, he sets out to make a masterpiece with each new movie, and the worst thing you can say about him is that he tries too hard. Giving a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down to his work is almost insulting: Good or bad, they're all Spike Lee Joints, and if you're a fan of the man, why wouldn't you want to see the next one?
Red Hook Summer is one of Lee's lesser films, and yet it's full of such bold strengths that you feel guilty for not loving the hell out of it. But if you first have to acknowledge the passion and skill that go into every frame, you also have to admit that Lee sometimes lets his mighty purpose compensate for his lack of clear ideas or thematic subtlety. Red Hook Summer is resonant and inspired when it doesn't resemble a film made by those old fools playing the dozens on the corner in Do the Right Thing.
The movie stars newcomer Jules Brown as Flik, an insular, gadget-obsessed boy who is shipped from his home in Atlanta to live with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn for the summer. Enoch is a man of God, preaching the Good Word every Sunday at his church and then in the streets and homes of Red Hook the rest of the time. At its heart, Red Hook Summer is a coming-of-age story as Flik learns to put the iPad away and experience life, but as with many of Lee's films, this low-budget effort is quite content to wander around, allowing whomever Flik runs across to become part of the narrative as well.
When the film premiered at Sundance, Lee made it clear he didn't want people to think of it as a sequel to Do the Right Thing, even though they both feature his Mookie character, are set in Brooklyn, and rise to a shocking moment of violence. No filmmaker wants to be accused of repeating himself, so his annoyance is understandable, but the sad truth is that Red Hook Summer shrinks in comparison to Do the Right Thing. (To be fair, a lot of films would.) While they both invest heavily in the vitality of city life—no filmmaker since Robert Altman so facilely populates his world with characters who feel like they've always been there—Red Hook Summer isn't focused around a principle thematic concern (race relations) the way Do the Right Thing was. By comparison, Red Hook Summer wants to take on poverty, gangs, Barack Obama, religion, race, and family, to name but a few. It's a commendable approach, but Lee doesn't tackle his themes in a way that makes them feel sufficiently addressed. Instead, he skips around, touching on provocative ideas that don't receive the care or follow-through they deserve.
The film's range of performances also reflects that erratic tendency. Brown tends to be unappealingly monotone, failing to reveal much of Flik's inner life, while Toni Lysaith is rather one-note as a tomboy-ish neighborhood girl who catches his eye. Lee has done great work with younger or inexperienced actors in Crooklyn and He Got Game, but two of Red Hook Summer's central characters end up being too flat to make their budding friendship add up to much. On the other side of the spectrum, Peters is simply extraordinary as the devoted grandfather, living and breathing his Christian beliefs every waking second. It's hard to know how much of his sermons were scripted, but he gives them an improvised, stream-of-conscious fervor that elevates the entire film, helping to encapsulate the story's rambling narrative into a parable about perseverance in the face of life's hardships.
But Red Hook Summer's digressions and dead-ends aren't in and of themselves problematic—it's that Lee eventually builds to a big (and ungainly) revelation that shakes this community to its roots. On one hand, the surprise is meant to be jarring, which it is, but the lack of careful foreshadowing leaves it feeling baldly manipulative as well. For all its messy inconsistencies, Red Hook Summer is held together by Lee's seriousness of purpose, which is why the ending feels like such a cheat—it's careless and inflammatory without being rooted in the concerns that have pulsated through the rest of the film. In this way, Red Hook Summer is very much not akin to Do the Right Thing, which showed how unimaginable acts can be carried out by people we think we know. And, yet, I can't fully dismiss Red Hook Summer: It's got too much life, too much verve in it. Spike Lee always makes movies you want to wrestle with—I just wish this one had more rewards to make that grappling worthwhile.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.