Movie Review - Red Hook Summer
The premise is about an African-American mother who takes her son Silas, nicknamed Flik Royale, from Atlanta to Brooklyn, New York, to live with Flik's grandfather, Bishop Enoch, played by Clarke Peters. This is where the problems start. First, Lee never gives us a reason why Flik's mom does this. It is assumed that maybe she does this in a Boyz n the Hood (1991) scenario and that maybe as a single black mother who struggles with a troubled teenager, her only recourse is to turn that teenager over to a strong black male figure to whip the boy into shape.
Aside from a bad attitude, which seems to stem from being dropped in an alien environment, there is nothing wrong with Flik. He's a great kid. He's smart. He's even a vegetarian. Maybe his mom merely wants Flik to get to know his grandfather, but she never says so. She never has a conversation with Bishop Enoch, nothing that lays out what the stakes are.
This perhaps would have been fine. Lee establishes that this young teen who is a vegan and carries an iPad everywhere is now under the control of this elderly, meat-eating, strict, technology-hating preacher. That alone could have been enough to build up something interesting, but what Lee builds instead is all over the map and doesn't make any sense. It's also too congruous to have the audience care about these characters.
Quickly, you learn that the movie is a series of sermons given by Bishop Enoch in his tiny church in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood. These sermons are interrupted with scenes of Flik interacting with a teen girl named Chazz. This year, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom set the bar pretty high with how great and funny these kinds of interactions can be between young teens. Spike Lee doesn't even come close.
I think what hurts is that sadly these two young teens aren't very good actors. It's either that or Lee's direction is too over-the-top. I would expect something like it from a Tyler Perry film or a David E. Talbert play but not here. The tone of this film is unclear. It's not a comedy, particularly in light of where it goes, but I just couldn't take anything seriously and that's in part due to Lee's direction.
There have been Talbert plays that have started in awkward or funny places and ended in dark places, but his handling of it was so much more fluid than the way Lee does so here. Quite frankly, the performances of these children were too annoying and grating. Hearing Chazz was like listening to literal nails on a chalkboard. I would have rather listened to the kid from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd, an actor who has appeared in several so-called Spike Lee joints, plays Deacon Zee, a character who could have been pulled out of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks. His character was interesting and potentially funny. Yet, Lee literally keeps him locked in the church basement for most of the film. Nate Parker (The Great Debaters and Red Tails) plays Box, another character who could have been great and actually is great but Lee keeps him restrained. Lee only gives Parker two great moments when his character should have been more integral to the plot.
Given that Parker is a far better actor than the two younger children, his presence was a breath of fresh air. He's good because unlike the rest, Parker is actually reacting. He's not just giving monologues or preaching, which is exactly what everyone else does. It's just one monologue after another, preaching after preaching, and this isn't even from Bishop Enoch. Lee makes pretty much every character in this film a preacher. It's enervating after a while.
It's not as if what people are saying isn't important or the issues raised aren't ones that need raising, except a film should tell a story. What Spike Lee wants to do or what he should do is a PSA or a documentary that explores these issues. Doing it the way that he does here isn't a good narrative. The music, especially the piano score, is too heavy-handed. I normally don't notice music, unless it's totally absent or if it's too much. It's certainly too much here at times. Other times, Lee chooses catchy songs for his soundtrack.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for brief violence, language and a disturbing situation.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.