Subtlety, thematic cohesion and storytelling pace have never been Spike Lee's strong suits. Things are no different with Red Hook Summer, his latest ode to Brooklyn. Modest in resources but epic in scope and ideas, Lee's new movie addresses so many topics that it seems to cartwheel from subject to subject. Whether via photos or vignettes, the movie delivers a barrage broad enough to encompass brief codas, fiery speeches, comic interludes and bitterly dismissive rants. If its effect is sometimes wearying, it's also often electrifying.
The main plot highlights a summer where the young black protagonist (Jules Brown) faces troubling truths. Most notable of these is that he doesn't understand or appreciate his heritage or family roots. Though his full name is Silas Royale, everyone calls him Flik. Flik is Lee's personification of a soulless 21st century black kid: over-reliant on his iPad, fearful of it being stolen, dismissive of anything that doesn't reflect the private-school environment where he's being "educated." A nightmare scenario, for Flik, is spending time around people outside his comfort zone.
But that's what happens when his mother decides to send him to Brooklyn's Red Hook district for the summer. Adding to his discomfort is that he'll be under the jurisdiction of his uncle, the flamboyant Bishop Enoch Rose (an exceptional performance by Clarke Peters), a Bible-quoting fundamentalist type whose perfect world would be a theocracy.
While the inevitable conflict between these two is part of the storyline, Lee uses it to delve deeply into the world of the black church. He nails the blend of pageantry and inspiration at its foundation, with Peters delivering an array of fire-and-brimstone speeches that invoke everyone from C.L. Franklin to Martin Luther King, with interspersed bits of Daddy Grace, Reverend Ike and T.D. Jakes. Indeed, Bishop Rose's character is so vivid and passionate in his verbiage that when his life doesn't match the rhetoric, the impact proves even more devastating.
Lee alternates their clash with the romantic interplay between Flik and a young woman named Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith). Their courtship manages to survive Flik's misguided attempt at getting her attention. (It involves a huge dead rat.) But eventually their interaction takes a more conventional turn, though it falls prey to the usual adolescent issues of trust, hormonal rages and emotional naivete.
Lee veers into many other arenas, among them racial conflict, gentrification, the place of women in the church structure and generational tensions, to cite only a handful. Because any one of these could fuel its own film, squeezing short discussions or injecting them as implicating factors in other situations means they don't get the thorough or thoughtful examination they merit. The sight of young kids being bullied, or blacks and whites preparing for battle, has sizable visual and emotional clout, but neither scenario gets developed fully enough to provide anything beyond plot devices along the way. You don't get invested enough in these situations to care about their resolution, and they frequently are irritants or distractions from the main themes.
That's definitely not the case, however, with the portions spotlighting either Bishop Rose or the proceedings inside the Lil' Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of New York. Rarely outside the realm of a gospel documentary or a Tyler Perry film has anyone taken more care replicating the nuances of black church ritual. Everything from the songs to the organ accompaniment to Peters' pacing and cadence — even his constant use of the Bible as a weapon — lands right on target. Whether you accept or reject the theology, Lee's presentation of it is stellar.
In the Spike Lee legacy, Red Hook Summer, co-scripted by his Miracle at St. Anna collaborator James McBride, falls somewhere in the middle. It's not as structurally deficient and scattershot as School Daze or Bamboozled, but it's also not as stunning in scope and impact as Malcolm X or Do The Right Thing. (The R-rated language may also chafe those less tolerant of casual profanity and vulgarity, though in fairness Lee doesn't overdo either.)
But Bishop Enoch Rose definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Lee's creations. Peters not only delivers the film's standout moments, he keeps it anchored and makes it memorable despite its excesses. At just over two hours, Red Hook Summer zips across so many subplots that the diminished focus blunts the powerful statement Lee intended on a panoply of social ills. Even so, it forms a poignant, compelling portrait of a community often seen only through twin snapshots of pathos and victimization.