Genre: Coming of Age/Drama/Slice-Of-Life
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 120 minutes (theatrical cut), 135 minutes (Sundance cut)
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, He Got Game, She’s Gotta Have It (TV Remake)
For Fans Of: Crooklyn, Fruitvale Station, Doubt, The Inevitable Defeat of Mr. and Pete, Black Nativity
-The theatrical cut was used for this review.
-The soundtrack had three notable musicians featured in it. The songs were performed by Judith Hill. She was a backing vocalist for Josh Groban and for Michael Jackson during his final years. Hill was even a contestant on The Voice. The score was written and composed by famous multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hornsby. He’s scored multiple works for Spike Lee such as Chi-Raq, the She’s Gotta Have It Netflix remake, and BlaKKKlansman. Some of you should know him for the 80s hit song “The Way It Is” that would eventually be sampled by 2Pac in the song “Changes”. The organ music was actually played by jazz keyboardist Jon Batiste who even plays the church organist T. K. Hazelton in the movie. He’s been a sideman for Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Ed Sheeran. Batiste is also a member of Stay Human is Stephen Colbert’s house band on The Late Show.
-Red Hook Summer is described as being part of Spike Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series and some of the characters who were in his earlier filmography show up here. Mother Darling is actually Nola Darling from She’s Gotta Have It and Tracy Camilla Johns reprises her role as the same character. Mookie from Do The Right Thing even makes a cameo and Spike Lee himself reprises that role (It was weird seeing him with Sal’s pizza outfit knowing what happens in that movie).
-Red Hook is a neighborhood in Brooklyn where it’s the only place in New York City where one can see the front of the statue of liberty. The name actually came from Dutch residents who called it “Roode Hoek”. Some famous residents of Red Hook include actor Michael Shannon, author H. P. Lovecraft, film director Matty Rich, actress Michelle Williams (of Manchester By the Sea and The Greatest Showman fame, not the Destiny’s Child member), pro wrestler/commentator Taz, and rap group Sunz of Man.
-This film was financed entirely by Spike Lee and filmed everything on location in Red Hook Brooklyn in an undercover and guerilla-style.
-Spike Lee’s favorite movies according to his interview with GQ are On the Waterfront, A Face In the Crowd, and Mean Streets.
-TV Series Fan Bonus: One of the detectives at the interrogation scene was played by Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. Yes, the same guy who played Clay Davis on The Wire was in this movie and even references his character by using his signature way of saying the S-word at the end of the investigation.
Of all the more notable directors I’ve featured on Iridium Eye, I have overlooked Spike Lee for some reason. This is surprising even though I’m not new to his works. I’ve seen clips of various movies and I saw Do the Right Thing in full during my time in college for the American Cinema class I took my senior year. Interestingly enough, Spike Lee was the only Black director with his work shown in that class and one of three non-white directors between this and the correlating World Cinema class I also took (the other ones I learned about were Akira Kurosawa and John Woo). For this project in February during Black History Month, I would be a fool to not mention at least one of his movies. I decided to give one of his more new-school efforts a try for this particular series.
So how good is this Spike Lee joint? Let’s find out.
Red Hook Summer involves the life of the thirteen-year-old boy named Silas “Flik” Royale as he spends the summer with his clergyman grandfather Bishop Enoch Rouse. Flik came all the way from Atlanta to Red Hook, Brooklyn to stay with him as his mom Colleen goes on a trip during the time. This was a huge change of pace living with Bishop Enoch since his grandfather is overly religious, can be strict with different things, makes his grandson volunteer at his local church Lil’ Heaven, doesn’t have a TV in the apartment, and even stashes Flik’s food away as well as giving him meat (Flik is a vegan). The boy has severe issues since he didn’t grow up in the church, lives in a nice house, attends a private school, and it’s implied he lives in the wealthier parts of Atlanta. He meets the other parishioners who live in the neighborhood, a girl named Chazz Morningstar who eventually hangs out with him, and also members of the local Bloods gang in Red Hook. Flik takes his iPad with him everywhere he goes taking pictures and videos of anything he sees much to the detriment of others. He struggles to fit in this rougher part of Brooklyn given his sheltered upbringing and isn’t used to being preached by anyone. Things do take a turn when he learns some things about the other locals around Red Hook in this hot summer.
I was taken aback by the low-budget filming style of Red Hook Summer, but it actually worked. The gritty filming, creative camera angles, and the mixed usage of footage such as regular cameras, super 8mm, and even iPad footage (done from the perspective of the Flik character) were handled quite well. Lee was already a household name that made big-budget movies at this point but seeing him go full-circle in hindsight to his earlier filmography using modern, yet basic technology at the time was a nice twist. The soundtrack was phenomenal. The songs from Judith Hill were impactful and the background music had great usages of gospel tracks, neo-soul, and choral music that fit each scene so perfectly. While not a neorealist film like the works of Jafar Panahi or Miraz Bezar, there are certain elements that shine like how there was a mix between non-professional actors and professional ones. Flik and Chazz were played by local children who made their film debuts and they also happened to be students at the same junior high that Lee graduated from. Jules Brown nails that teenage boredom and snarkiness so well that it made me wonder if he acted like that in real life. Toni Lysaith did a good job playing Chazz with her active church participation, sassy attitude, but also a hidden kind of pranking nature towards Flik. One standout performance when it comes to the professional actors was Nate Parker playing the gangster and aspiring rapper Box. It was shocking seeing someone who would eventually play Nat Turner as well as directing Birth of a Nation (2016) depicting a gangbanger. Talk about casting against type and that includes the other movie I’ve seen of him with The Great Debaters. Anyone else would turn him into some simple criminal figure, but he’s way more complex than that. An underrated scene would be of him confronting another character after finding out about his dark secret of committing a sex crime. He had so much vitriol shown in that scene and it feels a lot more intense in hindsight when you realize that Box’s actor was falsely accused of rape, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. Religion certainly plays a major role given how most of the characters are churchgoers, but it had an interesting balance like how Sister Sharon confronts Bishop Enoch. She calls him out for being too reliant on using Jesus as some all-purpose solution instead of putting it in action while she mentions that believing in a deity shouldn’t be the only thing. It was a nice take on the scripture of saying “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14), so I’m glad there was nuance on what would be an otherwise touchy subject. I’ve seen movies that only show an extreme of either side with how the divine works or should work with God being the only thing working with no other action (see: SEVERAL Christian movies) or saying that believing in a higher power is meaningless and stupid, no matter what (The Invention of Lying comes to mind). At the same time, there was a low-key critique of the white Jesus depiction with the several pictures of that version in Enoch’s apartment as well as the Lil’ Heaven church or how Deacon Zee praying to a giant blond Christ picture with such intoxicated (literal and figurative) sarcasm as the church suffers from a lack of funds and being jealous of white people having more resources in America. Some of the topics of gentrification, air pollution, and poverty are mentioned in non-didactic ways which are also good.
Red Hook Summer could use some improvements much like the Lil’ Heaven church. While the film was shot well despite the lower budget, there were some errors like a cheap green screen effect in the epilogue with Chazz smiling under a CGI rainbow in post-production. There were also some hood drama cliches inserted which rubbed me the wrong way like the gang aspect with Box, both Chazz and Flik being raised by single mothers (the latter is revealed to have a dead father even if he died as a soldier in Afghanistan), and characters who have died in the backstory of AIDS or other STDs which made me facepalm. They could at least de-emphasize this in certain parts, but some parts almost got to stereotypical Black movie trope levels. There are unintentional period piece elements because it’s explicitly mentioned that Flik rocks an iPad 2. Then came the shocking plot twist of Red Hook Summer. Pardon the pun, but oh my God. While the way the twist was shot was very impactful with the extreme close-up dolly shots of the surprise “parishioner” as well as one character looking like they have the cross in their eyes as it reflects the ceiling lights, it really hampered the story so much. As soon as said “parishioner” started quoting scriptures from the Song of Solomon book in the Bible, I knew EXACTLY where it was going and it ended up being far worse than I expected. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then let me put it to you this way…one former college classmate of mine jokingly described it being the most “erotic part of the Bible” during my freshman year and the context of the plot twist as well as a flashback makes those passages so much worse. I don’t want to get into spoilers even though I will mention aspects of it in the content advisory section out-of-context, but this ruins a potential redemption arc that could’ve happened and looked like it was telegraphing with a certain character. After the twist, it got extremely dark and it sickened me with how that character got away with it or at the very least got a slap on the wrist by comparison. It’s not protagonist-centered morality because this character does get called out and even beat up once the secret is out, but that was still very light since people have gone to jail for far lesser crimes. To be brutally honest, I was surprised that someone like that character would do what he did without getting jail time especially given his complexion in America. Yes, I know there are cases of people with similar occupations like that character getting away with what he did, but that stretched my suspension of disbelief.
This work from Spike Lee wasn’t his best, but it had so much potential. The filming style was creative despite the limited budget and the soundtrack was amazing. There was good acting and there was the potential of a great story. However, the plot twist really left a bad taste in my mouth as it made the movie turn into something I didn’t expect, but not the way that was good for the story. Red Hook Summer was such a polarizing watch as it had a strong first half of a movie before derailing once the surprise churchgoer shows up.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you’re a Spike Lee fan.
Add 1 point if you like powerful soundtracks in your movies.
Subtract 1-2 points if you have issues with movies critical of religion.
Subtract 1 point if you don’t like hood movie tropes on display.
-Creative usage of camera footage
-Phenomenal soundtrack and sound design
-Healthy balance with how religion can be used for good or bad while still critiquing it
-Sometimes the low-budget production shows itself
-Stereotypical Black tropes show up
-The plot twist makes Red Hook Summer a VERY morose watch and the aftermath doesn’t help
Final Score: 5/10 points
Content Warning: This is a Spike Lee movie, so don’t expect to show the kids this one. Red Hook Summer may not be as graphic as other movies from 40 Acres and a Mule, but this is still an intense watch. The language is strong (the N-word is used a lot) and the dialogue gets very adult with discussions about teen pregnancies, STDs, and innuendo. One scene involves someone getting beat up by Box and his fellow gangsters with both fists as well as the church tambourine (it makes sense in context and the imagery gets poetic in its brutality) and it gets quite bloody. The plot twist involves a character who’s revealed to have violated a boy fifteen years prior to the events of the movie and there’s a disturbing flashback scene where said character grooms them before molesting them. The action isn’t onscreen, but the implications are still there and are shocking. There are also themes of gangbanging, alcoholism, gentrification, poverty, and systemic racism in this film.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Red Hook Summer is property of Variance Films. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Variance Films.