Friday, January 18, 2013

Red Hook Summer

Clark Peters is a devoted man of God in Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer
** out of ****

Spike Lee, a director whose taken a decade-long hiatus from success but still commits himself to making enemies, made a film out of his own pocket last year. As a defender of the artist beneath the public hot-head, I am saddened to say that this is only almost a good movie.

The film is Red Hook Summer, the story of a thirteen-year-old African American vegan atheist boy from Atlanta, made to stay the summer with his strict old-fashioned evangelistic Baptist preacher of a grandfather in the rough Red Hook district of Brooklyn. The script is co-written by Lee and previous collaborator, James McBride (Miracle at St. Anna). It is said to be loosely based on real experiences of McBride's childhood. I can see Lee identifying with it in terms of its theme of religious culture-shock. However, Lee's earlier film, Crooklyn based on his own childhood was a slight inversion as that film dealt with being sent down south to experience the religious crazies.

Lee is still the stylistically strong director he was known to be with his abstract montages and creative cinematography (You can always expect his signature 'actor-on-the-dolly' shot). The subject matter does become intriguing as well. Near the end, the story goes in an unexpected direction which challenges your perception of a character in the jolting way that real life does and cinema is rarely brave enough to.

So why doesn't it work? Our lead character, Flik is played by first time actor Jules Brown. This character, during his time in Red Hook, meets a girl his age, Chazz, played by Toni Lysaith. I cannot describe how wooden and lifeless their dialogue delivery is in EVERY SCENE. It's pitiful. Like middle-school play, pitiful. Either Spike picked two performers beyond hope, or Spike doesn't know how to evoke good performances from non-actors.

The grandfather is a phenomenal character and well played by Clarke Peters. Lee regular, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, continues to play an urban decrepit flawlessly, though with age, he's a little less scary now.

Another thing I like about Red Hook Summer, is the soundtrack. Ever since Clockers, I've enjoyed how Lee likes to contrast soulful music that inspires hope with chaotic hopeless environments. It creates a sense of comedy as though there is a god smiling down on human insanity. In this case, he has employed singer Judith Hill to do several original songs for the film and they are beautiful.

Sadly, the potentially fascinating lead character and his coming-of-age circumstances are dead in the water for this film at the beginning. I understand what frustrates Lee about the state of cinema today and the lack of a profound African-American experience to be seen in most films. He may have struggled to get this movie made. It's obvious that the film was barely distributed. All I can say, is that it doesn't do this director any good to speak ill of other artists. 

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