Four years after the largely disappointing “Miracle at St. Anna,” director Spike Lee has returned with a film resembling many of his past classics. “Red Hook Summer” embodies Lee’s legendary ability to make a small film seem larger than life. A plunge into the rough and tumble Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, the film holds honesty as its largest virtue. With a running time of 135 minutes, the plot elegantly takes its time to establish a premise, quickly thereafter igniting its propellers and bringing to life a story that could easily be transcribed into a thick book.
“Red Hook Summer” tells the tale of Flik Royal (first time actor Jules Brown) and his grandfather Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters, star of “The Wire”). Flik is a 12-year-old boy from the middle-class suburbs of Atlanta who has come to spend a summer with his deeply religious grandfather at the Red Hook housing projects. Flik’s privileged and nurtured attitude does not fend well with Enoch, who often tries to reveal the realities of life and the word of God. Between masquerading his culture shock and fending off his grandfathers preaching, young Flik seems to be having a hard time adjusting to his new environment until he meets a girl named Chazz Morninstar. Through colorful characters and well-timed drama, the film is as much a coming of age story as it is a tale about forgiveness and redemption at old age.
In the past decades, few men have chronicled the urban working class of Brooklyn better than Spike Lee, who often criticizes it but unquestionably holds it very close to his heart. As a region that has recently experienced a revival in the form of gentrification, Brooklyn is a microcosm representation of the country’s wealth disparity. Lee efficiently encapsulates these discrepancies in a scene where Enoch looks out the window, past the project high-rises, onto Upper New York Bay to the sight of the anchored Queen Mary II and marvels at how two realities can coexist so disjointedly.
Flik’s first lessons on Red Hook come when he stumbles upon the notorious Bloods — perhaps his first encounter with real life gangsters. With his grandfather Enoch by his side, the persistent preacher seizes the opportunity to preach the gospel to the disinterested group. The bright red bandanas and T-shirts jump off of the screen in piercing fashion, making the group look intimidating but also foolish in their uniformity. Ending their conversation with nothing short of a threat, it becomes apparent that Flik has much to learn as he walks away absorbing the encounter.
Bishop Enoch portrayed by the talented Clarke Peters provides a performance of the highest caliber. Lee pays extraordinary attention to detail. There is no doubt that he is well acquainted with what goes on within the walls of the Baptist church. These elongated scenes are enlightening, and entertaining at the very least. Lee flourishes Bishop Enoch’s sermons with various camera techniques that provide stimulating visuals that go hand in hand with the eccentricity of the gospel. These scenes are some of the most honest you’ll find in any film, and are truly the heart and soul of “Red Hook Summer.”
Though the story meanders at points, Peter’s strong performance keeps the plot from disintegrating as he essentially carries it on his shoulders. Coming dangerously close to derailing into a hot mess, Lee manages to somehow execute a coherent progression and provide a satisfactory ending to a dense story, despite his reputation for patchy third acts. “Red Hook Summer” concludes, appropriately enough, with montage images of vibrant everyday folk at Red Hook. Regardless of intent, the director’s love for the city is evident as the Instagrammed images of Red Hook work as a love letter to Brooklyn. With great performances, and a story that is as much about politics and economics as it is about everyday relationships, Lee has yet again created another small film that could.