[Note: This review is of the 130-minute version of the film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been trimmed to 121 minutes for theatrical release, but I haven’t seen that version and don’t know what was cut.]
After dabbling with World War II in “Miracle at St. Anna” and mainstream popcorn action in “Inside Man,” Spike Lee returns to his old stomping grounds — geographically and thematically — with “Red Hook Summer.” This rambling drama is set in the same universe as “Do the Right Thing,” and serves as a spiritual sequel to the film that put Lee on the map 23 years ago. And just as “Do the Right Thing” is a snapshot of the artist Lee was in 1989, “Red Hook Summer” reflects the artist he is now: a little less angry, a little more self-indulgent, and still fascinating even when he’s not totally on his game.
This time we’re in the housing projects in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, where a 13-year-old Atlanta boy named Flik Royale (Jules Brown) has come to spend the summer with his grandfather, Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), whom he has never met. Enoch is the preacher at a tiny church called Lil’ Peace of Heaven — we see several Sunday services, and there’s never more than 25 people in the congregation — and has the respect of everyone on the block. Flik is warned to stay away from the drug-dealing gang members who occupy part of the courtyard, but even they don’t seem genuinely dangerous. Red Hook, depicted fondly, with bright colors and sunny personalities and almost no profanity, seems like an idyllic little community.
Enoch puts Flik to work at the church during the days, assisting drunken old Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) in small clean-up work and such. Flik also becomes companion to Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a bossy, tattling girl his age whose mother is one of the church’s trustees. Chazz shows Flik around the neighborhood, where his iPad — and especially his constant use of it — makes him stand out even more than his tall, puffy haircut (known as a ‘frohawk, apparently).
For a while, that’s about all the story there is in the film, which Lee cowrote with “Miracle at St. Anna” novelist James McBride. Enoch earnestly loves his grandson and his parishioners, and strives to help them have faith in Jesus; Flik rebels against the structure and claims to be an atheist. Slice-of-life vignettes with neighbors — including Mookie, the pizza delivery guy from “Do the Right Thing” — give Lee’s vision of Red Hook a vivid sense of authenticity. Lengthy, fiery sermons delivered by Bishop Enoch feel like they could have been pulled from a corner church, and Clarke Peters so fully inhabits the role that you’d swear he was a preacher in a former life.
But in the absence of a regular storyline, this day-to-day pleasantness starts to feel aimless, and it’s unfortunately hindered by 14-year-old newcomer Jules Brown’s weak acting. When something significant finally happens and we realize the movie has a plot after all, we wish Lee had gotten to it sooner — especially because it involves Enoch, who we realize is so much more fascinating than his grandson. The film is easily 30 minutes too long, and it meanders, even though it’s punctuated with several incisive scenes of Enoch and his associates conversing on matters of modern values, the broken economy, and their disappointment in the Obama administration.
Still, for those who have been watching Lee do his thing for almost a quarter-century, “Red Hook Summer” is a comforting return to form. Messy and sprawling though it is, the film resonates in a way that is distinctly Spike Lee. It makes you want to know what else is on his mind. I hope we don’t have to wait too long to find out.
B- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )