Spike Lee: Red Hook Summer (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Jun/150

Spike Lee: Red Hook Summer (2012)

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Flik is annoyed he has to spend the summer with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, in Red Hook.  But Flik is about to learn some lessons about what lies a virtuous exterior can hide, and how the best of people may not be enough to overcome the past.  Spike Lee directs from a script cowritten by James McBride and stars Clarke Peters and Jules Brown.

Harsh truthRed Hook Summer is going to be an odd film to talk about, at least for me, because a plot development in the third act shifts the focus of the narrative is such a jarring and irreversible way that a lot of what I would have chosen to talk about becomes a distraction. I'll try to do that anyway here, but I'm curious both what you think the role of that late narrative twist is, as well as how it impacts the rest of the movie.

In the initial scenes here we get a kind of updating of Crooklyn with notes of some of Spike Lee's other “neighborhood films.” There's a sense of nostalgia, but not necessarily located in the central character of Flik—who functions as a reverse of many of Spike's typical New Yorkers, coming to the Red Hook housing project from Atlanta, wielding an iPad and toting his own vegan food for the summer. This is telegraphed as a coming-of-age tale in which Flik will reconnect with roots he didn't know he had in the form of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse of the Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church.

Two notes: First, we saw the Lil' Piece of Heaven church for a few brief moments in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus—hooray for intertextuality. Second, it's interesting that Flik does form an attachment to Red Hook, but that ultimately his grandfather isn't the reason. We learn that he moved to New York late in his life, and the city ends up functioning more as an incidental site of Flik's first childhood romance as opposed to a kind of essential site of cultural connection the way it so often does in Spike's films.

That said, the first act of Red Hook Summer is some of the strongest film-making Spike's exhibited lately when it comes to painting a diverse, colorful picture of a neighborhood vibrating with life. From the moment of Flik's arrival we get a handful of long tracking shots that follow him and Bishop Enoch through Red Hook, and in addition to instantly evoking a community with deep ties and history, these sequences serve to establish the latter's role. Bishop Enoch commands admiration and familiarity from everyone he encounters, from a sort of teasing mutual respect with a Jehovah's Witness also gently proselytizing outside each day to a local drug dealer who, despite threatening violence almost immediately, seems to have some residual regard for the man from his own childhood.

There is more raw life and passion in the opening acts of Red Hook Summer than we've seen from Spike since Summer of Sam, and yet that plot development that comes to define much of the film doesn't sit quite right with me. I appreciate what Spike's trying to do and how it comes to redefine many of the scenes leading up to it—and Bishop Enoch's increasingly oppressive zealotry and condemnation of Flik's lifestyle telegraphs much of this well—but the way Lee handles the revelation and its aftermath seems surprisingly unfocused. It shifts our attention away from a character who at that point needs all eyes firmly on him. I realize I've written far more than I meant to in starting out—what did you make of this one a second time around?‏Spreading the wordMy second time around left me with greater appreciation, and apprehension, about Red Hook Summer (first review here).  The vibration of neighborhood life, especially one in the midst of such decay as the Red Hook projects are, is what keeps Spike's return community narratives wonderful for long stretches.  Watching Red Hook Summer again I was struck by how vibrant the colors of each of the characters are.  We have the deep reds of the neighborhood drug dealers, purples of Flik's mother and Bishop Enoch's preaching garment, and the crisp whites of the church parishioners - save one curiously silent man in the back who is in a light pink suit.  Spike makes Red Hook Summer look like two different ideas of a film from a pre-adolescents perspective by presenting all the neighborhood players in such vivid color, like a kid introduced to oil paintings for the first time, and the shaky framing and grainy digital look from Flik's iPad.

The intertextuality of Red Hook Summer with the rest of Spike's filmography is impressive as well, because Spike's been doing this for over two decades and keeps giving us subtle clues about the life of the neighborhood.  This is where focusing on the church, and the vibrancy of color, brings new evolution to his community films.  All vacillate around the church and it's important to note that of all the characters in Red Hook Summer only two are white - one of the cops and Jesus.  The cops are still pursuing the poor for the wrong reasons and turning a blind eye to Bishop Enoch's past, much like the church continues to shuttle Bishop Enoch around whenever his past sins catch up with him.  The vibrancy of community life is in the stories each of the people tell one another, which is why those colorful scenes of the players interacting are the best, not in the institutions they worship or work for.

Bringing these ideas ahead, maybe this is how we can work with the late-film molestation twist.  The always fantastic Colman Domingo and Clarke Peters give powerhouse performances when the truth is revealed, and Spike finds the perfect note of style to end on as the Bishop looks up toward Heaven with crosses burned into his eyes as he preaches almost incoherently for reason.  I agree with you that it's jarring, but not because of the sudden reveal or most of the execution, rather because of one crucial style shift during Bishop Enoch's confession.  The grainy digital stock of Flik's iPad is capturing the historical truth, not the colorful emotional one, and that was the perfect choice to film the Bishop as he dances around what he did.  But switching back to the colorful and crisp style for the act itself is hitting emotional truth, but also the historical truth, and ends up feeling like it's making light of what the Bishop did.  If Spike had kept the grainy digital look while incorporating the vibrant color then the revelation would have stuck out a bit less and incorporated both thematic styles.  Instead, it comes across as a cartoon about molestation, and we end up back at that territory where Spike is really trying to shed a light on corrupt institutions but ends up using trauma in a disempowering way.‏Young luvTiny Kyle CommentaryThat's a good analysis of how the flashback to the actual act of abuse is framed in the overall film and why it struck me as exploitative and ultimately unnecessary. The confrontation in the church—with Bishop Enoch's victim slowly making his way up the center aisle, as we and the congregation gradually catch up with what the other two already know—unfolds with such conviction and and force that it's like a lightning strike. You can see the pain this has caused the victim so clearly that there's no doubt about whether or not the accusations are true (and the reaction of one of the older congregation members, who just approaches Bishop Enoch and stares afterward, perfectly encapsulates the damage this revelation has also done to the community).

Why then show the act itself? What is gained by dwelling on the mechanics of the assault, other than to show how Bishop Enoch used Bible verses to manipulate and rationalize his behavior—a point that doesn't really need to be made following the initial accusation? The scene the flashback is couched within is also unsettling for the wrong reasons—as Flik sits alone with his grandfather, walking around his own confession, who reveals that Flik's mother likely knew about the abuse and yet brought Flik to stay for the summer anyway.

What works well in the conclusion, in addition to the initial accusation in the church, is how Spike subverts the coming-of-age formula, leveling criticism on not just religious institutions that protect their own but also on the way acceptance of tradition can be a powerful tool for covering up deeper personal and cultural offenses. One great exchange takes place early in the movie, as Flik points out in a painting that Jesus wasn't white. Bishop Enoch regurgitates an easy line to defer the question: “Well, we don't really know what color Jesus was,” to which Flik replies, “Then why is he white?”

Yet even as these final uneven scenes undercut Bishop Enoch's standing and position in the community, Spike isn't comfortable with lingering here. He ends the film by focusing on Flik and Chazz's summer romance, which is genuine and effective throughout, thanks in large part to Toni Lysaith's performance—but this narrative move shifts the focus away from the act of abuse that was just revealed. It uses the abused character precisely as long as the plot requires and then discards him, and it leaves Bishop Enoch in an ambiguous though basically consequence-free situation. While we can speculate that he won't likely hold onto his position in the church and the community, Spike structures the story in a way that mirrors too many real-life cases in which accusations result in nothing but a small public scandal that quickly fades without incident. It's an off-note ending that threatens to undo so many of the strengths of the film—I don't think it quite does that, but it still keeps me from remaining quite as enthusiastic about Red Hook Summer as I wanted to be early on.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWe're going to have some minor differences in reception on those points.  The final revelation doesn't entirely derail Red Hook Summer, though it's a shame we don't get to see Colman Domingo anymore, and I would have liked to see and hear more of Daniel Breaker, who played Youth in Passing Strange.  His appearance was another one of those subtle intertextual moments which works splendidly with Passing Strange, since we could easily imagine Stew going back to the church where he had a true spiritual experience once after his mother died.  The revelation also sadly supports Flik saying his mother hated him earlier in the film.  She clearly doesn't, but her care seems haphazard and focused on making sure he is provided for monetarily instead of emotionally.

Lysaith's performance is something I have to approach with nuance and context, because on its face she's terrible.  None of her line readings worked for me as she wavered so strong in each direction emotionally that there never seemed to be a solid core to her performance.  Now that's not entirely her fault, and some of the blame should shift to Spike for writing such as flat character, but her one strong emotional moment cops out for me much like the unattended aftershocks of the revelation do for you.  The scene with Flik and Chazz on the bridge in darkness, working out their young feelings about faith and community, is great right up until she jumps off the bridge.  Joke or no, it raised the stakes of their conversation in such a way that the normal amount of emotional manipulation I'm fine with in movies was jettisoned and I was just angry.

Still, I like that Spike presents their relationship with a sort of begrudging romance since Chazz is the only person in the community around Flik's age, and it's not enough for me to lose enthusiasm about what does work.  We'd need to look at another film to highlight why Red Hook Summer works, and that's the John Patrick Shanley 2008 film Doubt with amazing performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis, while Meryl Streep pulls out her usual overrated hysterics at points.  That movie is entirely about suspicions of sexual abuse, and ends with Hoffman's priest gaining more power, but aside from generating a moment where Hoffman and Streep get to yell at each other there's little sign of lingering effects on the community.  Here, for as much as the trauma gets brushed aside, we see the pain and rage in the eyes of Chazz's mother and the elderly parishioner, and the justified outrage of Born Knowledge (Fred Tolliver Jr. in both a performance and character I wanted to know more about) as he beats the Bishop.  Red Hook Summer has the rare problem if introducing so many interesting elements, but lacking the length to bring them to their proper conclusion.  Maybe if the camera drifted back to the community, like it does earlier in the film, you might not have left so dissatisfied.‏My confessionTiny Kyle CommentaryMore of a focus on the community at the end would have gone a long way. We get some short interactions between Bishop Enoch and a few residents of Red Hook as he walks Flik to his cab at the end of the film, and these work as an inversion of the early scenes where he introduces Flik to the community for the first time. Clarke Peters is great in these final scenes—and one thing we haven't talked about much is how consistently good his performance is throughout—as a man ashamed and hollowed out by the abuse revelations. He's a timid, stooped impression of his former self, and Flik's initial youthful rejection against being (we can now probably say) abandoned in Red Hook for the summer now has solid grounding.

I'm curious what you thought of the very end in light of your comments about Chazz's character being mostly flat (which I don't necessarily disagree with, even though I enjoyed the performance more than you did). How did ending on a note that ultimately emphasizes her importance to Flik as the final narrative takeaway of the story work for you?‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryThe appearance of the rainbow overhead in one of those wonderful "so fake it's real" moments meant a lot more to me than her smile did.  What that shows is how Flik sees the community as one vibrant tapestry, and his association with Chazz was the strongest and only real positive point of it all.  I may not have thought much of her performance, but the way Spike presents their relationship throughout Red Hook Summer makes this burst of happiness at the end consistent with what came before, and ultimately more than a little sad.

I have a feeling we'll have a lot to say when we revisit Red Hook Summer during our final podcast roundup.  It's such a strong film with so many grand stumbles that our conversation here about the presentation and narrative overshadowed other elements, such as the worst soundtrack since Clockers and specifics about each performance.  Red Hook Summer is a worthy addition to Spike's canon, especially since it doesn't fit together so comfortably.‏

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Posted by Andrew

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