Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Red Hook Summer

The flaws I attributed to little experience and less money in Spike Lee’s often brilliant feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, have turned out to be hallmarks of this sometimes great but wildly uneven director’s work. Some of them—the wooden acting; the overlong amateurishness of set pieces like that earnest dance segment—are jolting but forgivable lapses in judgment from a filmmaker whose work is generally distinguished by enormous style and life. But the tendency for some of his characters to harangue each other and us has gotten harder to shrug off over the years.

When people in Red Hook Summer go on about the evils of gentrification or the links between poverty and childhood asthma, I get that antsy feeling I got as a child when some humorless teacher lectured the class about something we already knew. I feel bored. I feel patronized. I feel like Spike doesn’t trust me.

Red Hook Summer is rife with that kind of preaching. Most is done in Little Piece of Heaven, a beautiful little neighborhood church near a Red Hook housing project, but there’s plenty of it outside the church too, as one character after another grandstands about the ills plaguing the neighborhood and the working-class (though too often not working) African Americans who are currently being driven out of it. Even the songs on the soundtrack preach at us, blasting too loudly to remain in the background as they tell us what to think and feel.

The speeches delivered by the riveting Clarke Peters, who anchors the film as Bishop Enoch Rouse, are engaging on a purely visceral level, but even they go on too long. And the film spends as much time with Flik (Jules Brown), the sullen 13-year-old grandson who’s spending the summer with his grandfather, as it does with Enoch. That’s a problem, since Brown is not a good enough—or maybe well enough directed—actor to come off as anything but a blank-faced audience surrogate. Toni Lysaith, who plays Flik’s friend/love interest, is adorable but equally unconvincing.

The scenes between the two kids, as they explore the neighborhood and supposedly fall in love, lack the depth and emotional complexity that permeate every one of Peters’ scenes. That imbalance and the camera styles that keep shifting, often for no apparent reason, help make this sometimes deeply moving, sometimes didactic movie feel, yes, wildly uneven.

Written for The L Magazine

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