' Cinema Romantico: Red Hook Summer

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Red Hook Summer

Though many references are made to the foul smells of the neighborhood that gives Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” (2012) its title, from the odiferous cruise ship docked in the harbor to urine soaked elevators in tenement buildings lining the projects, and though the criminal element forever looms, Lee nevertheless allows a sunny disposition to creep in anyway, evoked in the way he often allows warm reds to saturate his visuals, mimicking the sun dappled trees we occasionally see that almost seem to be infusing the screen with oxygen right there before our very eyes. And Lee repeatedly outfits the soundtrack with wordless hymns, as if this meant to reassure the characters themselves that things are never so bleak as they seem. If the narrative can sometimes feel formless, as it often has in Lee’s later years, that still feels right, like a sermon delivered by a preacher without a text, just feeling his way along, maybe getting lost here and there but always finding his back, and always conveying passion, always seeking to make us think as much as he makes us feel.


“Red Hook Summer” is part summer vacation movie, part coming of age film, but with a Biblical bent. Its genesis is a 13 year old attached at the hip to his iPad, bearing the regal Spike Lee-ish surname of Flik (Jules Brown), up from Atlanta for, delivered by his mother to her father, Bishop Enoch, played superbly by Clarke Peters with equal tenderness and fire & brimstone. Flik also meets a neighborhood girl his age, Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a member of Bishop’s Enoch congregation, who tells off Flik as much as she makes eyes at him. Though the amateurism of the two first-time actors clearly shows, the energy of their respective performances is nonetheless palpable, and they make an endearingly rowdy duo. There is a scene when they go kayaking in New York Harbor, in the shadow of Lady Liberty, a splendid little bout of local flavor, and as they trade insults like they’ve had years of practice at it, you can feel the “You Gotta Be Kidding” frustration of the instructor in the background.

The real push and pull of this “Red Hook Summer”, however, belongs not to Flik and Chazz but to Flik and his grandfather. If Chazz, a believer, is content to let Flik figure out for himself whether he believes or not, Flik’s Grandfather is more forceful, withholding his grandson’s preferred vegan food and even screaming and shouting, waving around the Bible and hollering “It’s all in the good book!” And while Enoch is steadfast in this belief, “Red Hook Summer” is never simply assumes the Bible alone can move mountains. The movie is most alive when Enoch preaches, and when he preaches, he ties Scripture back to the social structure of the Red Hook neighborhood, and of the world itself. He wants his flock to be filled with the Holy Spirit, most assuredly, but he wants them to direct that fulfillment outwardly, to combat crime and gentrification. And even if his suspicions of technology can be misplaced, you have to admire the way he fights to get back his grandson’s precious iPad when it’s taken.


If Flik’s doubt is in God’s existence, the hoodlums, whose paths continually cross with Flik and Bishop Enoch, have doubts in the church itself, its function and intention. At first blush it seems this authenticity is on display in Deacon Zee, a broadly drawn character who might have faith but also has a drinking problem. In the end, Deacon Zee is just a red herring, and the spotlight gets shone down on Bishop Enoch instead, calling into question everything everyone thinks they know about him, and that includes us too. This is a movie, I imagine, that was and will forever be defined by the sudden turn it takes toward the end when Enoch, so consistently drawn as one thing, is suddenly revealed as something else. It is jarring. It is also alarming because it calls into question why Bishop Enoch’s daughter would allow her son to be in the presence of his grandfather for an entire summer based on this hidden truth. But that’s rooted more in traditional narrative concerns, and in his later years, Spike Lee has become less interested in traditional narrative concerns. If there’s a hole, there’s a hole, and who cares if you see it? Lee is more interested in how this sudden twist makes us feel.

This is a movie where God continually takes center stage, and as Bishop Enoch himself explains, “God loves all his people.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but Lee does not just want us to accept it at face value; he wants to challenge it; he wants that idea to be earned. He does not, by any means, let Bishop Enoch off the hook for his sins, but Lee also calls upon to offer empathy, and to remind us that offering empathy is not always supposed to be easy. So go ahead and watch “Red Hook Summer” and see if you can.

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