Spike Lee's new film, Red Hook Summer, takes him back to the streets of Brooklyn and it puts him back in the role of Mookie, pizza deliveryman for Sal's Famous. But it isn't exactly a return to form - at least not the too-long version that screened at Sundance.
Flick is a 13 year old kid from Atlanta whose mom makes him spend the summer with his grandfather in Red Hook, a dockside Brooklyn community that has been undergoing rapid gentrification in the past few years. His grandfather is Bishop Enoch, the preacher at a small Baptist church next to the Red Hook Projects, a strict man who believes that Jesus is the only way to happiness.
Flick, who is constantly recording footage on his iPad 2, couldn't be less happy to have been moved from his house in Hotlanta to the projects, but he soon makes friends with - and falls for - a local girl named Chazz. He gets to know the neighborhood, including the local gang, all while his grandfather keeps trying to turn him to Jesus. But this isn't a Tyler Perry movie, where all the answers come in empty pulpit platitudes, and Flick's coming of age includes understanding dark truths about religion and the people around him.
Red Hook Summer spends lots and lots of time talking about Jesus. The film includes three full sermons from Bishop Enoch, played with fierce intensity and conviction by The Wire's Clarke Peters (one of many The Wire alums sprinkled throughout the film). The sermons are long but full of energy and fire; they're almost the set pieces of the movie. And it's easy to believe, as you sit through a long, long sermon and gospel session, that Spike Lee has decided to move into Tyler Perry's house and attempt to sell to the black faith-based community. But then the third act rolls around and you realize what Spike is actually doing.
Spike Lee is in single combat with Tyler Perry in this movie. There's a direct jab - a poster for a movie called Fat, Black & Craziieeeee is seen, featuring a Madea-like character - but the most important stuff comes in the powerful third act, where Red Hook Summer is examining faith and self-reliance, sin and forgiveness, obedience and independence. This stuff is truly electrifying, and it's what the entire film is slowly building towards. Even the look of the movie, which is brightly colorful from the beginning, kicks up a notch in these final scenes as Spike - filled with righteous fury - goes all the way with it. The expected Spike Lee floating dolly shot is here, and it's one of the most powerful yet, and there's a truly arresting visual where Bishop Enoch, with his shock of Morgan Freeman-esque hair, preaches straight up at heaven, cross-shaped flourescent lights reflected in his pupils.
But for some that third act will come way too late; Red Hook Summer is undeniably bloated, and the middle section of the film becomes repetitive and seems to have lost the way. Spike needs to cut a good thirty minutes from this film and give it some shape. Messy doesn't even begin to cover the film's faults - which are many, but outweighed by the sheer energy of the filmmaking when everything is hitting in the right ways.
Unfortunately no amount of editing will save the central child performances. Jules Brown (Flick) and Tony Lysaith (Chazz) are cute, and some of their scenes of flirtatious bickering are fun, but the kids have incredibly flat deliveries and are simply incapable of selling some of the fine dialogue written by Spike and James McBride. Most of the words fall mushily out of their mouths.
Speaking of the script, parts of it are really wonderful while other parts are painfully didactic. Which, on some level, you have to expect from a Spike Lee film. This time he's found a semi-reasonable explanation for characters simply delivering polemics - Flick is making a documentary about Red Hook on his iPad. Still, it would have been nice if Spike had managed to work some of this stuff into the narrative more organically, rather than briefly stopping the film to have someone talk at the camera about building condos next to the projects or about health problems in Red Hook.
To deny that Red Hook Summer is problematic is silly. But to dismiss it because of those problems is equally silly. While it's not a return to the heights of Do the Right Thing or Crooklyn or his other Brooklyn films, it's a powerful statement wrapped in the expected audacious Spike Lee filmmaking.