August 8, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Red Hook Summer

by Vadim Rizov

Red Hook Summer

"Gentrification done reared its ugly face and now we in the belly of the beast," Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) roars at his tiny Brooklyn congregation. Jesus can help with real estate turbulence, Enoch asserts, just as he can be the air conditioner of your soul during record summer heat. The link is pure faith unsupported by any kind of practical plan. Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer interrogates the seeming unassailability of the church in black cultural life, an institution flatly enshrined by Tyler Perry's tediously pious reminders to keep the faith. "My man don't have the domain on religion," Lee told GQ earlier this year. "He's kind of bogarted it now, but it's not his private domain."

13-year-old vegan atheist grandson Flik (Jules Brown) is staying with Enoch for the summer. Raised in sheltered suburban Atlanta ("I don't talk white, I just go to private school"), Flik's naive to the unbelievable extent of never having heard of the Bloods or understanding why to stay away from them. Chazz (Toni Lysaith) is his summer puppy love companion, who nags at Flik to get right with the lord, or at least to unbend enough to make his grandfather happy during Sunday service. Both teens are unbelievably stiff when dutifully reciting dialogue, which takes on a weirdly distancing quality: they're the thematic center of gravity, but thankfully displaced by the more experienced actors around them.

Red Hook Summer

Arguing with Chazz's mom Sharon (Heather Alicia Simms), Enoch makes the case for unwavering patriarchal authority derived from Christian conviction, while his romantic/conversational foil preaches a more flexible, pragmatic mentoring approach. Hashing out big issues (the myth of eroded moral standards that must be recaptured in order to advance the race, Obama's failure to single-handedly bring young black men back into productive society) in talking-points clumps, Lee pits unwavering evangelical rigidity against comparatively secular humanism. Flik and Chazz mirror this battle: "Boy, you got some deep roots," she tells him while picking out his hair, but Lee doesn't just mean follicles. Along with serving as an enforcer for Sunday prayer, Chazz's asthma makes her a symbolic casualty of unchecked real estate/commercial development, a more potent function than suggested by her performance.

Red Hook Summer takes place in a neighborhood where even criminal ex-attenders effortlessly quote chapter and verse. Enoch smiles approvingly at Jehovah's Witness Mother Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns): better some religion, he tells Flik, than none at all. Black atheism is a charged topic, and 13-year-old Flik's stance goes mildly largely because of his youth. Enoch tries to bully Flik into accepting Jesus during Sunday sermons, standing directly in front of him while sweatily extolling whoever needs the lord in their life to step forward. Flik's peevish, kneejerk aversion seems eminently justifiable.

Red Hook Summer

Tackling both gentrification and black religious life in a single movie is a steep agenda. Lee mostly turns the latter into a bad joke: one of two white people in the film is an incredibly unpleasant white harridan who shrieks at Flik and Chazz as they repeatedly deface a concrete sidewalk slab drying in front of her stoop. "Go back to your home and stay there!," she screams, a nightmare of oblivious white privilege run amuck. Enoch's response—trust in Jesus—is inadequate as a pragmatic way of organizing a marginalized community towards action regarding a serious issue the film only barely articulates. Long past a civil rights movement it helped catalyze, the church can no longer clarify the issues nor serve as an effective rallying ground. An alcoholic deacon's extemporaneous denunciation of the links between docked cruise ships blanketing the neighborhood with exhaust fumes and local child asthma rates is righteous but useless.

Enoch's adamant piety raises inevitable questions about what dark secret is behind his fervor. The big third-act twist calls Enoch's kindly authority into serious question. Confronted by a vengeful figure from the past before his congregation, the preacher directly screams into the camera about wolves appearing in sheep's clothing. Never one to shun brash expressionistic gestures, Lee applies Bruce Hornsby's already bombastic score and Judith Hill's arrangements of gospel standards with typical relentlessness to mundane interactions and fiery confrontations alike. Red Hook Summer brings potentially lurid twists to a hotly-colored climax.

RED HOOK SUMMER's Spike Lee (center)

At age 55, despite his recent difficulties getting studio films greenlit, Lee's probably not ready to begin hammily recapitulating his greatest hits for nostalgia's sake, complete with the cameo returns of Do the Right Thing's Mookie and She's Gotta Have It's Nola Darling, as well as a time-out to salute—once again—Lee's beloved Knicks. (He only steals from the best otherwise: the "White Jesus" bit from The Boondocks is reenacted in live-action format, and The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr. cameos, reuniting with co-star Peters to say "Sheeeeeeit" one more time.) Dramatically inconsistent and prone to undigested sermonizing, Red Hook Summer coagulates as it focuses a single institution and quietly makes the case against it.

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Posted by ahillis at August 8, 2012 1:11 PM