Spike Lee is a filmmaker of many different faces. Be it his work as an underrated documentary giant or his fiction narrative work within genres ranging from biopic (Malcolm X) to war film (Miracle At St. Anna), Lee is as restless a filmmaker as he appears to be a man. Never one to avoid controversy, Lee’s latest dramatic effort, Red Hook Summer, took to film festivals like Sundance earlier in 2012, and not only caused polarizing discussions, but became one of the most talked about small pictures this year has to offer. And now, thankfully, the unsung gem is finally available on home video.
Following the story of a young boy, Flik Royale (played beautifully by newcomer Jules Brown), as he not only meets his grandfather for the first time, but is to spend the summer with him in the Red Hook segment of Brooklyn, Red Hook Summer is not as breezy as that plot description would have you think. His grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters in what should be a performance with far greater a number of awards attached to it), has a past we aren’t entirely sure about, until it is revealed as to why the journeyman preacher can’t seem to keep his roots down. Warm, inviting, and emotionally affecting, Red Hook Summer may not be the director’s strongest film since his underrated masterpiece Bamboozled, but it sure as Hell is his most engaging and sees Lee at his most engaged.
Stars Peters and Brown are revelations here. Brown plays Flick, and while he’s constantly got an iPad in front of him, documenting his experiences in Red Hook as one would have to imagine a young Spike Lee would have given this generation’s affluence towards technology, his heart is what truly leads him. Flick sparks a relationship with Chazz Morningstar (played by Toni Lysaith) and it is in their interactions where the film’s true aesthetic is revealed.
Featuring a screenplay co-written by Lee and James McBride, the film has the energy and verbal kinetics of a stage play. Over the top, almost cartoonish dialogue gives this film a nearly breakneck pace and vitality, mixing Lee’s penchant for social philosophizing with his strive for experimentation, into what is best described as a sun-drenched off Broadway production put in front of a camera.
And in these moments of philosophy, the film expands into greatness. Often fodder for Peters and his preacher character, his performance is both full of fire, and yet full of heartbreaking emotion and sometimes grace. The character’s ultimate background is polarizingly off putting, but given the sun soaked photography from Kerwin DeVonish, it appears far more interested in its lead character’s coming of age and how it pertains to his grandfather, his lack of faith, and everything between. The reveal gives the film an odd and arguably uncalled for and uninteresting left turn, but for the 90 minutes leading up to that impossibly conflicting final act, it’s as great a coming of age tale as we’ve seen all year.
The final act is truly the film’s greatest issue. The style, from Lee’s use of different stocks and filters to DeVonish’s gorgeous photography, saves the film from dragging in that final act, but it is something that any viewer will wrestle with long after the final frame rolls. There are moments of greatness within it (Nate Parker’s performance as Box is fantastic) as well as problematic ones (there are some plausibility issues given actions of everyone involved, including Flick’s mother), so it’s one of the more intriguing if not completely odd conclusions to a film this year.
However, it’s an absolute return to experimental form for a director who is continuously pushing the boundries of cinema. Whether it be this coming of age drama or his form-challenging sports documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, and it’s home video release does it justice. A music video and behind the scenes segment adorn the release, but what will have any Lee fan coming back for more is the director’s commentary. Lee routinely gives the best commentaries around, so it’s impossible to go wrong here. It may be one of the most talked about and divisive films 2012 has given us, but it’s also one of the most beautiful and oddly intriguing.