"I came here to hide but there was so much beauty it didn't seem like a punishment," explains Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) deep into Spike Lee's latest, Red Hook Summer. Much of the film reads like an argument Lee is having with himself regarding a number of topics: religion versus atheism, progress versus tradition, redemption versus accountability, black Jesus versus white Jesus, fatherhood versus spiritual advisement. However, this moment is clear, direct and confirmed by much of what precedes it aesthetically. Red Hook Summer glows in a saturated glory, its succession of shots of the Brooklyn neighborhood where it's set unfurling like a slow-moving fireworks display. Perhaps it goes without saying, but Red Hook Summer is Lee's latest love letter to the borough he calls home.
Lee often contrasts his vision with that of his protagonist, Flik (Jules Brown), a young teenage boy sent to live with his preacher grandfather Enoch for the summer. Flik regards the world with an eye-rolling wariness he's way too young to possess. He halfheartedly chronicles his summer with the camera on his iPad and we see the world from his point of view: dull, bled of color, contained. One of the most provocative ideas Red Hook Summer explores is the close-mindedness of youth and the disservice it does to everyone. Lee's camera gushes, "Look how beautiful the world is!!!" while Flik's goes, "Meh."
It's too bad Lee doesn't have better help conveying this sentiment. Brown telegraphs his character's angst well with a perma-scowl, but his line readings are flatter than his iPad. When he screws up his face, it's sometimes for the sake of just getting the words out. Even worse is Toni Lysaith, whose Chazz Morningstar is around Flik's age and befriends him through light antagonism. Virtually everything Lysaith says is telegraphed on her face a half second before it comes out of her mouth. It's not entirely her fault, as she's given lines way older than her character's years – during an excruciating, would-be emotional high-point between Brown and Lysaith, her character fake-cries (I think?) and proclaims, "I wanna feel pretty with nice clothes and a nice house." Her character is bad at acting, and Lysaith is bad at acting bad. Lee has been making movies for almost 30 years and it's mind-boggling that he signed these kids and then devoted so much screen time to them.
As irritating as it is to watch, there may be a thematic reason for the stiltedness that doesn't stop with the kids – the movie reflects the nature of a rollicking church service. Bruce Hornsby's music flows out like an incessant organ, just shy of blaring out dialogue. Since preaching is a performance, it follows that the acting in the movie feels so performative. However, it's handled with grace and nuance only by Peters, who puts on and peels off layers of bravado as each scene calls for it. He's at his most riveting during the film's electric church scenes, which convey the intoxicating nature of worship. Red Hook Summer serves well the year that black churches became highly visible in pop culture.
For over an hour, Red Hook Summer crawls along looking very pretty and jolting occasionally. And then comes a third act reveal that will blindside most viewers for the sheer lack of foreshadowing. I admire Lee's gutsiness, and the suggestion that life-changing events are not necessarily preceded by anything, that BAM, one day they just show up. However, I'm not exactly sure what depth it gives to what precedes it, if anything. Sometimes a shock is just a shock, and an electrified mess is still a mess.
A shaggy dog meditation, Red Hook Summer makes few grand pronouncements within its incessant prodding. There's a contradictory aimlessness within its fixed vision, which feels like a cross-eyed respect to viewers' intelligence but also like a disservice to their pleasure receptors. It's a strange one, Red Hook Summer, a film about preaching that ultimately says very little. But maybe that, too, is intentional and a statement in itself.