So once again we have survived.

Red Hook Summer

tn_redhooksummerIf I were to tell you I watched a movie with characters named Flik Royale, Chazz Morningstar, Blessing Rowe, Deacon Zee, Mother Darling and Bishop Enoch, what would that tell you? That’s right – it was a Spike Lee movie.

(Later we find out that Flik is a nickname and Enoch is an assumed name. Gator Purify didn’t have that luxury.)

RED HOOK SUMMER is the low budget indie movie Lee put out last year, kind of a return to his roots after a couple bigger studio movies, INSIDE MAN and MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA. Spike says it came about when he was talking to James McBride, author of the St. Anna novel, about what they saw as the dire state of black cinema. (I take that to mean “complaining about Tyler Perry movies.”) He had recently bought a digital camera so he asked McBride to write something and they would make it. Together they came up with a story about a middle class Atlanta Kid, maybe 13-14, coming to stay with his estranged grandpa in the Red Hook housing projects of Brooklyn.

Flik Royale (first timer Jules Brown) is a quiet kid who likes to record everything on his iPad 2 (he always specifies the 2). He’s also a skateboard kid (or at least he owns a skateboard – you only see him actually skate in a montage at the end) and he has a haircut referred to as a “fro-hawk,” so he’s kinda outside the usual movie stereotypes of what black kids are interested in. He stumbles glumly into not-the-greatest summer vacation situation.

He says he’s vegan, but Grandpa (Clarke Peters) makes him eat eggs. He doesn’t believe in God, but Grandpa is a Bishop and makes him go to church on Sundays and work there during the week. He never met his grandpa before this, and grandpa didn’t even know that his dad died in Afghanistan. It’s very telling and mysterious at the same time when, in the opening scene, Mom brings Flik to Grandpa’s door, introduces them, but doesn’t come inside.

mp_redhooksummerPeters is great playing a complex character. A whole lot of his screen time is in church, preaching and singing or outside of church talking to people about what’s wrong with the kids today, what they’re missing or have too much of, what needs to be done. It’s all well-meaning and on the surface seems like Old Man Spike on a soapbox, or on a stoop like Da Mayor. But then you look at Flik and you know The Bishop’s way off base. This is a good, smart kid. The biggest trouble he gets into is writing in wet cement or chasing his one Red Hook friend, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith – also a first timer) with a dead rat. (By the way, shouldn’t have shown that thing in closeup. It looked like a cat toy!) The Bishop probly sees his iPad 2 as a crutch, a toy, an unnecessary wall between himself and other people. But Lee obviously sees it as a filmmaking tool. I bet every day on set he wished he’d had one of those at Flik’s age.

Flik does have a certain distance, either from being brave or from being naive about the neighborhood. There are some drug dealers who hang out in the park, the ringleader being Box (Nate Parker from RED TAILS). The Bishop likes to remind Box that he’s known him since he was a kid, and try to lecture him, but he also knows that he’s a genuine threat, and warns Flik to stay away from him. Flik won’t grow up to be like Box, if that’s what he’s worried about. The kid is not impressed. But he’s not scared by him either, and just goes up to him and starts recording footage.

Grandpa can sell God to the kid later, first he’s gotta learn to relate to him. Toward the end there’s a new piece of information that calls the whole thing into question, and is arguably too much for the story, but before that it’s a very sweet portrait of grandpa and grandson slowly learning to deal with each other.

Since the kids are first time actors they sometimes struggle with Lee’s chunks of stylized speech. But it’s a worthwhile trade-off for their natural, unpolished presence and their chemistry when she hides how much she likes him by calling him “STOOPID!!!” all the time. Brown has definitely mastered playing a teen looking unhappy and distant. Was it worth being in a movie for all the hours he had to play bored in church? Probly not as glamourous as being the THE BAD NEWS BEARS or something.

I don’t know if any of you guys saw this but for about a week and a half here there was some suspense because Spike tweeted a twitter-tweet where he thanked people for supporting his career over the years and said he would have a big announcement on Monday. Then on Monday he said the announcement had been delayed for a week. Then this Monday he announced a Kickstarter for a new movie. But before that I saw two different articles, and there were probly more, worrying that he was gonna announce his retirement. It seemed like he could’ve been fed up because he’s had a hell of a time getting movies made for such a high profile director. Even after his biggest hit ever, INSIDE MAN, he had project after project (including the sequel) fail to get the funding needed.

But low budget movies like this and the Kickstarter one are a good solution to that problem. I would say this is not one of his better movies, but it felt great to see that Spike Lee again, the one that makes these little New York City dramas with his unique perspective on humanity. It looks like Spike Lee World, colorful places you would never see in anybody else’s movies. I thought The Li’l Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook was an amazing little set with its cross-shaped ceiling lights, but apparently its an actual church belonging to McBride’s family. (Or maybe that’s just the exterior?)

It’s also tied in to DO THE RIGHT THING because Lee has a brief cameo as “Mr. Mookie.” He’s delivering a pizza and still wearing the Sal’s Famous uniform. I’m not against these movies taking place in the same world, but I wasn’t prepared for how sad it made me to see Mookie still working at Sal’s after all these years. It’s optimistic in that it means Mookie and Sal worked things out after the events of that hot night in ’89. He must be like a member of the family now. But he was not happy there. He shouldn’t be still doing that in his 50s. Man, I hope he doesn’t have to go home and get yelled at by Rosie Perez. She still looks good but it’s not worth it.

A more subtle connection is a character saying “That’s the truth, Ruth,” which I took to mean that Mr. Senor Love Daddy is either still on the radio or fondly remembered and referenced by people in the neighborhood.

RED HOOK SUMMER definitely feels like that era of Spike Lee’s jointography, but the one drawback is the digital photography. This camera looks much better than what he used on BAMBOOZLED and ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, but I thought it looked too smooth, at least on the blu-ray. I missed what it looked like when he shot on film. As a reminder there are a few little bits shot on Super-8 or something, something beautifully grainy. Oh well, I guess Spike Lee on not-the-best camera is better than Spike Lee sitting around developing bigger budget movies that never get made. And digital can look good now. He’ll get a better camera eventually.

Thanks for not retiring, Spike.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013 at 12:18 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Red Hook Summer”

  1. Knox Harrington

    July 23rd, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I guess he’s doing stuff like the Oldboy remake these days because the 90’s heyday of edgy, message-driven indie black cinema is long gone and Hollywood seems to think nobody’s interested anymore. Kinda sad, though. You’d think there would be tons of people still interested in seeing films like Malcolm X and Clockers. Actually, I think there really are loads of people still interested in those kind of films. The big studios are just too eager to make $200 million blockbusters, hoping they’ll end up with the next big hit, not realising that they could make 5-10 smaller films and probably make just as much money (and not run the risk of ending up with the next John Carter or Lone Ranger).

    Hollywood’s become so inhospitable to gifted filmmakers. If guys like Scorsese and Lee are struggling to get films greenlit, then clearly something’s wrong. Thank God for people like Megan Ellison.

  2. This was definitely a mixed bag. There are some fantastic moments throughout the movie. And I think even Spike Lee’s bad films are fascinating to watch (I wouldn’t necessarily include Red Hook with his misses). But the revelation at the end kind of killed the movie for me. (Spoilers). It isn’t that I couldn’t handle a character who has a dark past in a film that asks us to feel some measure of sympathy for him. It’s that the reveal comes so late in the film that this really horrible event isn’t properly dealt with. If it had occurred half way through the movie, then I think Lee could have better handled this issue. But Clarke Peters is fantastic, as always.

  3. It’s pretty crazy to think that there were so many edgy, message-driven works of indie black cinema in the 90s that the Wayans family could make Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood and have it be, like, advertised on TV and released in theaters. (Depressing to think that that same movie would probably be called Urban Movie if it came out today.)

  4. @Knox, it’s funny you mention both Scorsese and Lee because those guys are not at ALL in the same boat! Scorsese got some independent funding for “Hugo,” but even with the Oscar nominations, that movie was like lighting money on fire – it SERIOUSLY underperformed given the $175 million budget, and that’s with a super muscular ad campaign keeping it in theaters for months.

    Contrast that with Lee’s Miracle At St. Anna, the rare war film about forgiveness that I hope some double back on and re-evaluate some day. That movie cost $45 million – which for Spike was like breaking the bank. Unfortunately, Disney dumped it with very little promotion at the ass-end of September, and that seemed like the reason Spike was having difficulty getting anything funded, including Inside Man 2.

    The point being, if you’re a white guy in Hollywood, you are allowed to make eight bombs in a row. Lee? You get one war movie to get right, and once it performs poorly, you’re OUT. Look at Kasi Lemmons – she makes The Caveman’s Valentine, an underperforming indie that boasting an AMAZING unsung Samuel L. Jackson performance, and she doesn’t work for another six years, when she makes Talk To Me. And that movie is also mishandled by the distributor, dumped without a presence in the marketplace, and then it’s another six years between movies.

    Meanwhile, Zack Snyder makes Sucker Punch, which is a disaster for WB, and he gets first Superman and THEN Batman. Bryan Singer loses what I’ve heard is $100 million on Jack The Giant Slayer, and he’s back the next year with another X-Men. If you’re a white male director in Hollywood, you get carte blanche. If you’re a minority or female, it’s one strike and you’re out.

  5. I agree that there should be more women and minorities making Hollywood films, but the careers of Snyder and Singer aren’t hard to understand, are they? They’ve had one or two bombs, but only after they’ve had a bunch of huge money-making hits.

  6. Haven’t seen this yet, which makes me guilty of being a bad Spike Lee superfan. I’ve seen almost all his work that’s been made feasibly available on tv or disc, and the only film/work of his that didn’t move me or intrigue me much at all was. . . INSIDE MAN! His most “successful” film. It was alright, though.

    Even the annoying, agressively aggressive Lee joints are rewarding & highly watchable. Sometimes hearing Spike talk or watching his more Political Statement type films is like having a fight with a good friend; you’re pretty sure you’ll stay friends, but man she sure reaches close to that point where you want to grab her and shake the unnecessary venom out of her, force her to see that her mind has gone off in some unfollowable direction. It’s not always cathartic, but you’re glad you went through it, and you feel like you learned something by listening to the movie yell at you, and it’s okay to yell back (unlike with so many other movies, where everything either has to be a demonstration of cleverness or has to have an amicable, tidy ending and a clear moral message).

    Anyway, RED HOOK SUMMER is streaming on the internet’s leading killer of local video rental stores, so I should watch it soon to see if it causes me to update my controversial Top 10 Spike Lee Joints list.

  7. Knox Harrington

    July 25th, 2013 at 3:03 am

    Yeah, I’m not sure I agree with you, Gabe. In Hollywood you’re allowed a few bombs if you have a relatively recent, steady track record. You could argue that films like Man of Steel and the next X-men will have decent box office no matter who directs them, really.

    As for Scorsese, he hasn’t made a film he really wanted to make for a really long time (looks like Silence is finally happening, though). The dude’s got a shitload of alimony to pay. He can’t afford to stop working. He is, to some extent, a director-for-hire these days (although a brilliant one, with a reputation for being one of the greatest filmmakers ever, which gives him more leverage than most). It’s a tough industry. It’s not all about passionate filmmaking. Sometimes you gotta do stuff like direct the Oldboy remake just to stay in the loop. I’d say that Lee has had a tougher time doing director-for-hire stuff because he’s probably more reluctant, and he has a reputation for being a very message-driven filmmaker.

    But hey, if Oldboy 2.0 is a hit, maybe we finally get to see Summer of Sam 2: Sam’s Revenge.

  8. I think Gabe has a point. Not only was Snyder’s Sucker Punch a bomb, but Walkman and that stupid owl movie both underperformed. If Snyder was perceived as a more idiosyncratic director (also read as a woman or a minority) I don’t think he would have been given the reigns to one of the biggest films of the summer. But studios assume that Snyder has some connection with the general audience, despite the fact that most of his films have struggled to make it at the box office. It seems strange to me that he gets a pass but Spike Lee, who is a well known name and makes inexpensive movies, cannot find a studio who is willing to back him.

    Here’s another variation on Gabe’s argument. It’s questioning why inexperienced male directors are so readily given big budget pictures early on and why women directors are not given the same amount of trust: http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/hollywood_trusts_first_time_male_directors_with_big_budget_flicks

  9. I don’t know why I wrote Walkman. I meant to type Watchmen. It’s too fucking early.

  10. nabroleon Dynamite

    July 25th, 2013 at 6:46 am

    This was one of Spike’s mid-level joints. Clarke is a one man show Damn near.

    As a black atheist who grew up in the Baptist church, I enjoyed the familiarity of the day to day black church bullshit!

    And lots of abuse takes place by the “leaders” of the church (although I actually never had anything but good times or mad boredom there. Just never believed the bible myths).

  11. I think Snyder is a unique case. I’ve noticed it too, but it’s not like every other white director gets that same opportunity. I think for whatever reason the guys at WB really believed in Snyder and wanted to keep working with him. If the JUSTICE LEAGUE stuff goes well it will have paid off, because they’ve been trying to figure out how to do that forever and needed to find the right director. (Well, find another right director, after they dumped George Miller.)

    But yeah, I wish Spike Lee could find the money to make the movies he wants to make.

  12. I think part of the reason Spike Lee doesn’t get a “pass” like some of the other directors mentioned probably has to do with him personally less so than the work he’s done. I think part of what makes his voice so strong in his films is that he’s generally a very outspoken guy. I’d be shocked if there weren’t a few execs that have a personal issue with Spike Lee the man rather than Spike Lee the film maker. I of course am just taking a stab in the dark here and could be completely incorrect, but that’s the impression I’ve always gotten.

  13. Oops typo above… It should say, “has to do with him personally MORE so than the work he’s done.”

  14. Knox Harrington

    July 26th, 2013 at 12:18 am

    Also, you just have to look at the kind of movies they make. Snyder has an uber-blockbuster style. He makes huge, over-the-top action spectacles. This guy was born to make big summer movies; it’s his thing. There will always be a place for guys like that. Hell, even Stephen Sommers is still working.

    It’s much tougher for guys who insist on their strict personal visions. Paul Thomas Anderson had a hell of a time getting The Master financed. Again, Megan Ellison to the rescue.

  15. Dikembe Mutombo

    July 26th, 2013 at 1:19 am

    I liked RED HOOK SUMMER. It’s rough around the edges, like most of his movies, but I thought there were a couple scenes that were such great examples of Classic Spike, they were so energizing – the part where Colman Domingo (who was amazing btw) confronts Clarke Peters, and the sequence of Peters walking home after his beating. It was thrilling just to see that Spike ‘has it’ still. Peters was great, and probably overlooked in award season.

    I saw the movie with a small audience of what I think were black baptists (I live in the south), judging from the way they clapped and intoned along with Peters’ sermons. It was incredible hearing how scandalized they were by the movie’s twist, which I unfortunately knew about in advance. So that was a memorable experience. Overall I don’t know if the movie ‘works’ all the way through, and the kids are pretty bad, but after ST. ANNA (which I wanted to be so much better than it was) it was pretty cool to see him make something that’s in his wheelhouse again. One of the things that makes his movies so lively and unique are the little things stuffed in the margins, the apt moments that you know no other director would even think of putting in a movie. I like that he uses the film to talk about Brooklyn as it is today, and the scenes where characters comment on the way Red Hook is changing have the understated sadness you associate with people who have come to terms with an inevitable change in their way of life – reminds me of LAST OF THE MOHICANS or somethin.

    It’s too bad nobody seems to want to be in the Spike Lee business anymore. I wish Megan Ellison would hook up with him.

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