Technically, the film is crude. Shot in murky color, with poor framing and sloppy editing, the film makes you wonder what Lee is up to. Is this deliberate? If so, to what purpose?
Were he not a veteran filmmaker you might suspect Lee didn’t have proper shooting permits and was grabbing shots however he could.
The problems only begin there. “Red Hook Summer” has a meandering story that clocks in at a self-indulgent 121 minutes. Lee has made many fine films that ran long and no one cared. Since this story asks you to attend church and listen to a bishop preach multiple sermons, however, you start to fidget and check your watch.
The preaching continues, and if anything it worsens outside church. Characters address each other in speeches about their lives, attitudes, religious feelings and God himself. About the only thing worth listening to is the soundtrack, a fine collection of gospel songs, spirituals and rhythm ‘n’ blues.
Whenever Spike Lee sets a story in his native Brooklyn, it seems to be a personal-issue film — going back to his electrifying debut “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986 and continuing with “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Crooklyn” (1994), “Clockers” (1995) and “He Got Game” (1998). This holds true for “Red Hook Summer.”
Red Hook is a poor and sometimes dangerous section of that borough. This is where the film’s protagonist, the iPad-toting “Flik” Royale (newcomer Jules Brown), unwillingly comes from his middle-class Atlanta home to spend a summer with his highly religious grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (accomplished actor Clarke Peters).
The purpose of this visit is unclear other than his mother thinking it a good idea for him to get to know a grandfather he never met. The more you find out about the preacher, the more you wonder why she thought this was a good idea.
The two are at odds from the first moment as the Bishop seemingly can’t help recruiting souls for Jesus. Flik, sullen and rebellious, is never likely to come around to his grandfather’s point of view.
He does make a close friend in Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith, also a newcomer), a pretty girl the same age. They hang together constantly in spite of the fact they too mostly quarrel.
So the film, which Lee wrote with James McBride, meanders from the Bishop’s spartan apartment and the Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church to its basement where an alcoholic caretaker resides, and to the streets where young toughs hang out and sometimes harass Flik or his granddad.
There is no break In this cycle until the 90-minute mark when the film veers in a new direction. At least this gives “Red Hook” a dramatic charge but it comes at the expense of the grandfather. Essentially, an accusation is made that doesn’t seem to fit his character.
“Red Hook Summer” is Lee’s rumination on the role of the church in the black community. It’s filled with speeches and debates on this issue, but I’m not certain that either Flik or the Bishop are the best spokesmen for these opposing views.
The peripheral characters are caricatures, viewed with little depth and much condescension despite the fact Lee seemingly has no animosity toward them. It’s almost as if he isn’t sure what he thinks about the overtly religious who blindly surrender themselves to the Lord and His perpetually money-leeching churches.
That sharp right turn 90 minutes in doesn’t help clarify things.
Even Flik’s relationship with Chaz, with whom he spends much of the film, remains fuzzy until the final moment when Flik acknowledges his feelings for the girl. Otherwise “shut up” and “stupid” are the terms of endearment between them.
So the murkiness of the cinematography and editing carries over into Lee’s story. There’s nothing wrong with ambivalence toward an issue. But “Red Hook Summer” is simply ambiguous.
Opens: August 10, 2012 New York; expands August 24 (Variance Films)
Production companies: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks in association with Variance Films
Cast: Clarke Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, Nate Parker, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd
Director/producer: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Spike Lee & James McBride
Director of photography: Kerwin Devonish
Production designer: Sarah Frank
Music: Bruce Hornsby
Editor: Hye Mee Na
R rating, 121 minutes