RED HOOK SUMMER is the latest installment in director Spike Lee’s informal “Chronicles of Brooklyn”, a loose body of films that includes SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, CROOKLYN, CLOCKERS, and HE GOT GAME. RHS begins at the beginning, just as 12-year-old Flik Royale (Jules Brown) is dropped off in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn by his mother to spend the summer with his estranged grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). Bishop Enoch is ceaseless in his sermons to Flik, attempting to bring his entitled grandson into the light of Jesus Christ. He is also ceaseless in his love. Flik fights his internment from word one, and suffers a great deal of culture shock as compared to his settled and safe life in Atlanta. But he meets a girl his age named Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith) who shows him a few things about navigating the city and prompts him to question. Despite the work Flick is obliged to do at Enoch’s financially ailing chapel A ‘lil Piece of Heaven, Flik slowly acclimates to this new world. He gains a scope of how socially, morally, and emotionally complicated things really are, and that the world is much bigger than what he can see through his window back home.
Lee is highly perceptive of his characters’ internal drama, the exterior conditions that ensnare them, and the history – both personal and sociopolitical – that is their foundation. He balances feelings of hopelessness and discomfort with moments of brightness and fortitude. Bishop Enoch is a complex man with deep and full feeling, and if Clarke Peters doesn’t deserve an Oscar I don’t know who does. Lee balances the intellectualism of his socially critical dialogues with a sense of comedy and youth, often in the same stroke. Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) embodies that balance in his mix of drunken physical comedy and his woeful monologues. Lee also balances his portraiture of humanity with that of urbanity, bringing Brooklyn not only into the visual forefront but into the conversation.
Primary colors are exploited throughout. Along with the glide of his camera which follows more classical cinematographic tracks, Lee creates a highly distinctive look, particularly for the HD format’s hyper resolution and color sensitivity. Lee blends aesthetic anti-realism with tonal realism, and on this point, draws a link between himself and what Wes Anderson has been developing over the past 16 years. With these most recent films as examples, both directors skirt lines between caricature and character, realism and anti-realism, yet always boasting sincerity. Proximally, one can’t help but compare RHS’s Flik and Chazz to Sam and Suzy of Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom; two sets of 12-year-olds (played by non-actors) confronting dissatisfaction with the mechanics of the world, struggling to find autonomy to affect those mechanics, and who screen themselves from the world’s ugliness through theater. For Suzy and Sam, theater means storybooks and wild survivalism as they thrill in a well-planned escape. Flik and Chazz, unable to flee but no less escapists, consult technology (flick’s ubiquitous iPad2) and religion. Both Lee and Anderson wield such pungent deliberateness as per what appears on screen and the flow of events, a quality not least of which is expressed in the names of their characters. They exhibit such practiced precision yet their films burst with vitality.
Though the mix of actors and non-actors tends to polarize one another – the oversaturated and over-forced case of Chazz Morningstar being hardest to endure – the performances of Clarke Peters and Quincy Tyler Bernstein (as Chazz’z mother) stand out as revelatory (their understated scene together alone on the couch towards the middle of the film is as validating of the film as Terence Howard and Jodie Foster’s one-take café scene in The Brave One). Even Jules Brown pulls off some fantastic moments of genuine precocity and indignance.
All told, RHS is a standout film for Lee and for 2012 on all points. It is ultimately a fair and dynamic film with a fresh feel that renders an uneasy moral dilemma for the audience. It affects deeply, and looks good while doing it.
Red Hook Summer opens today in Philly-area theaters.