It’s difficult to encapsulate Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee’s new movie about an Atlanta teenager and potential future documentarian named Flik spending the summer in Brooklyn’s housing projects with his preacher grandfather. To some, the return of Mookie, dispensing advice about proper pizza conveyance and wondering about a sold-out condo across the street from the projects, makes it a sequel to Do The Right Thing. To many critics, it appears to be an uneven and overlong combination of coming-of-age story, love letter to Brooklyn, exploration of the black church, and strikingly dark twist. To me, Red Hook Summer is likely to be one of the most misunderstood movies in years. And I’d be willing to lay money that it will be one of the most intriguing, moving things I see this year, a profound challenge to the apolitical whiteness and cliche storytelling that define so many mainstream movies.
For a movie significantly set in and around a church, there’s something fitting about the structure of Red Hook Summer, which follows two narratives that rise together like the arcs of a masonry vault, each held in place by the keystone that is Clarke Peters’ performance as Enoch Rouse, bishop of struggling Red Hook church Little Piece of Heaven.
The first arch involves the search for a villain, or at least a source of menace in the neighborhood where Flik finds himself spending the summer. The first candidate is a white gentrifier in the neighborhood who is outraged when Flik and Chazz, the neighbor girl who attends Little Piece of Heaven faithfully with her mother Colleen, write their names in the fresh cement outside her house. “Are you two out of your minds?” she screams at them, all out of proportion to the slight, which a less proprietary homeowner might view as a sweet touch of the neighborhood. “Come on, show me what you got! Go back to your home and stay there!” as if by confining Flik and Chazz to the housing projects, she can have the Red Hook that she wants.
Later, the sense of menace shifts from gentrifiers to a new generation of neighborhood residents, specifically Box, a Blood gang leader who used to attend Little Piece of Heaven with his mother, Sister Augustine. On his arrival, Enoch warned Flik to stay away from Box, but Flik can’t resist trying to interview Box as part of his neighborhood tapestry. “What kind of questions?” Box wants to know when Flik makes his request. “Like what you do to make my granddaddy so mad?” the boy explains. Enoch told Flik from the beginning that he should “be careful with that thing out here,” when his grandson seemed determined to see the world through the lens of his iPad 2, and it’s Box who proves that the power to witness, and to record, can be threatening, and make the observer a target.
The second arch revolves around a series of three services at Little Piece of Heaven, which seem likely to be the most misunderstood parts of the movie (and already one place many critics are suggesting cuts), but are a powerful and subtle exploration of the growth of faith, the role politics play in people’s lives, and the power and fragility of community. There are three important elements in each of these sermons, each of which contributes in a significant way to the movie’s powerful denouement, which happens at the end of the third church service.
First, there’s the element of chastisement and conversion. In the first service, Enoch singles out Flik as the person in the sanctuary who needs Jesus, humiliating him. In the second, he singles out Deacon Z, the drunken, but still effective, chief elder of the church. “Why you so hard on me, Brother Enoch,” Z asks Enoch after the Bishop singles out his drinking as proof he needs the intervention of the Lord. “There ain’t but 3 men in the church. All in the late Octobers of life, looking for a few Aprils.” His call for Enoch to be more tolerant in services is coupled with a suggestion that Bishop Enoch be more tolerant towards Mr. Kevin, a young white man who runs a summer camp for Red Hook children. “He’s even helped a couple of them get into college,” Z tells Enoch. “What’s he doing that we’re not?…He’s saving those kids.”
Second, and speaking of kids getting saved, the services trace Flik’s growing openness to the gospel that Enoch’s pushing on him so aggressively. He’s slumped crankily with Chazz in a front-row pew during the first service. But in the second, he’s beginning to respond to the choir’s worship music in the second. And by the third, he’s singing and clapping along with Chazz and the rest of the congregation, an expression of joy and new faith that only makes what happens later in that third service, after the call to accept Jesus, even more shattering.
Third, the services are one of the many places where Red Hook Summer’s characters get into politics. One of Spike Lee’s many virtues is that he may be the director in America who most understands — and more importantly, values — the role that politics play in ordinary peoples’ lives and thinking about the world around them, and Red Hook Summer is no different. I would say there’s something bizarre about the fact that Hollywood focuses on characters who seem to have next to no interest or investment in politics, but in its obsessive focus on young, white, affluent people, Hollywood’s chosen a subset of characters who have the least to gain from engagement with or attention to the political process. When critics like GeekyTyrant complain about the fact that with Lee’s movies, “you know you’re going to get a lot of political talk and rants about how bad America is right now with everything going on,” they’re betraying a lack of awareness that it’s the lack of opinions or views that ought to be considered strained in movies, not the presence of them.
When Enoch preaches about pollution in Red Hook, telling his congregation, “Those cruise ships are docked, blowing out black smoke and giving our children asthma,” or Mr. Kevin says he wanted to work in Red Hook in part because of the residents’ higher rates of asthma and heart disease, their questions are not academic. “Why you suckin’ wind like that?” Chazz’s mother asks her, after catching Chazz and Flik post-flight from the gentrifier. “Those inhalers cost a ton of money.” And without spoiling things, that ongoing conversation also plays a critical role in setting the stage for the movie’s most critical scene (which I’ll discuss after the movie’s been released and people have had a chance to see it). Politics are not academic when pollution and drug costs are literally a matter of your survival.
There’s no question that there are flaws in the movie, among them a disruptive and deeply unnecessary reference to The Wire, and a less-disruptive though very funny swipe at Tyler Perry in a background movie poster. But I’m surprised to see critics complaining about things like switches in the cinematography, a clear sign of when we’re seeing things through Flik’s eyes, or through his camera. And absolutely, the language of the script is frequently intentionally artificial, but in particular, I found Chazz’s mannered nature charming rather than distancing, evidence of a child constructing an identity. If these occasional lapses in discipline are the price we pay for Spike Lee doing everything else he does so powerfully, it’s almost impossible for me to comprehend how they wouldn’t be worth it.
“We live right, but sometimes stray,” a chorus sings after the movie’s climax. “We’ll have to answer for our lives.” Red Hook Summer is a gorgeous testament to that ability to, as Ray Bradbury put it, behold beauty yet perceive its flaw, whether the object of our gaze is humanity or a housing project. If the movie is dismissed because Spike Lee has the courage to tell the truth about Hollywood and black Americans, or because it aims less to be entertaining than profoundly moving, that would be a real loss.