Once your brain adjusts to the over-the-top, stage-styled performances, there’s a strong chance Spike Lee’s latest effort, Red Hook Summer, will come off as a poignant project with a lot to say. But getting past the odd delivery style, where every actor— except for Jules Brown and Spike Lee, himself—project like they’re aiming for the back row of a giant theater, with forced cadences and overblown bravado, can be a challenge.
Rants and pleadings are shouted towards the heavens, diatribes are hurled between characters, and even simple greetings, for some reason, sound like they’re coming from a preacher’s pulpit. And it’s clear that these delivery choices were made on purpose but for what purpose? The film is less effective because of its distracting dialogue. That, and the constant use of soul music behind nearly every scene of the 130-minute drama screams “overkill.” Lee’s first feature since 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna is an overly-stylized attempt at examining religion that absolutely works at parts but fails at others.
Self-financed and shot over 19 days, Red Hook Summer is a return to the guerilla filmmaking that started Lee’s career. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in under two weeks. This film is a companion piece to Do the Right Thing. Lee even reprises his role as Mookie, the pizza delivery man for Sal’s Famous Pizza. But where She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing flourish with the DIY mentality, both remaining tight and structurally sound, Red Hook Summer spins out of control. The third act reveal comes off as forced and unnatural and, really, the entire tone of the film is a misstep. That being said, Red Hook has a lot going for it.
Newcomer Jules Brown plays Flik, a young boy from Atlanta whose mother drops him off in Red Hook with his grandfather for the summer. Brown exudes confidence as a young actor and really knocks it out of the park. I could have sworn I’d seen him in other films but apparently this is his first. Brown is someone to watch for. The scenes he shares with Clarke Peters (The Wire) are phenomenal. Peters plays Flik’s grandpa Enoch, a man seemingly devoted unwaveringly to his religion.
Peters’ over-the-top performance works. His life as a preacher is naturally depicted through boisterous greetings and sermon-like everyday dialogue. But when the rest of the characters take on his preacher characteristics, the film suffers. In the end, the examination of religion and its arms within tight-knit communities makes the film worth watching but getting past the tone is a prerequisite.