Spike Lee didn’t grow up in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook Summer; he grew up in Fort Greene, the central locale of his 1995 crime film Clockers. Rather, Red Hook is the stomping ground of Jim McBride, the famed writer and musician who serves as co-writer and co-producer of Lee’s latest, a tale of generational and cultural schisms sprawled across Red Hook’s infamous projects, monuments of turmoil and history for the poor and immigrated, locked in by surrounding gentrification. And yet, as he documented Bedford-Stuyvesant in Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn, Bensonhurst in Jungle Fever, and Coney Island in He Got Game, the filmmaker brings out a distinct rhythmic pulse of community and dialect in Red Hook with a preternatural sense of involving, topical melodrama.
The central friction that builds up in Lee and McBride’s story comes in the familiar guise of the conflict between stubborn, traditional behavior taught via organized religion, and the liberal, posturing intelligence engrained through modern technology and the breadth of knowledge it renders readily available. As such, the seasonal relationship that Lee explores between local preacher, Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), and his fro-hawked Atlanta-born grandson, Flik (Jules Brown), is exemplified by two items: the Bible that Enoch grips onto like lost love and the iPad that Flik uses to document, relate to, and communicate with his new surroundings.
Enoch similarly utilizes the Bible, not to mention his commanding, effervescent speechifying, to communicate with a handful of local parishioners and colleagues, including Sister Morningstar (Heather Simms) and her daughter, Chazz (Toni Lysaith). His faith is his art form and seeming comfort, but it also allows him the great indulgence of rebirth or, in other words, denial of his past self. But even as the tremendous, chilling horror of Enoch’s past is uncovered, in one of Lee’s most fearless and unexpected sequences to date, McBride and Lee are careful to not simply dismiss the positive influence of Enoch both on the local community and Flik, whose marine father died in Afghanistan. The steady maturation of the centric grandfather-grandson relationship isn’t ambivalent nor is it purely defined by Enoch’s heinous crime, making the post-revelation scenes between Clarke and Brown feel especially lived-in and poignant.
Indeed, one of Lee’s greatest gifts as an artist has always been his graceful evasion of easy caricature in characters that beg to be sketched in simple, neat terms. At first sight, Flik, who partially hides behind his slick moniker, is a nightmarish vision of youth overrun by style and technology, sporting a pompous veganism and a Superdry bag, but as he develops a relationship with Chazz, we see a smart, empathetic, and energetic young man. Similarly, Box (Nate Parker), the alpha thug of a local Bloods chapter, is seen at once as a posturing bully, a timid artist and a furious avenger, while Enoch’s right-hand man, Deacon Zee (a phenomenal Thomas Jefferson Byrd), wanders around in an alcoholic haze, even as he sorrowfully preaches about the nuanced tragedies of poverty and a history of moral bankruptcy and greed in his community. Deacon Zee may be a fool, but only in the way the gravediggers in Hamlet are fools.
Following the fascinating, severely bloated Miracle at St. Anna, Red Hook Summer is certainly the most personal and compelling narrative film Lee has produced since He Got Game, but it’s also the first film where the looseness and unpredictability of his documentary work seem to have melded with his love for actors and, to a lesser extent, narrative. He gives the great Peters plenty of room and the David Simon axiom commands every single moment of the film with the strength and fury of a true believer, and Brown and Lysaith, both discovered in the drama class at Brooklyn’s John Dewey High School, which Lee attended, make sensational first impressions. And the film teems with personal detail: McBride’s parents founded the small, exquisitely designed church where Enoch delivers his fiery sermons.
The filmmaker, who got more press for his Django Unchained remarks this year than for this great film, addresses the deep human complexities that are as robust and rampant in the African-American community than they are in any other, but the film, which employs high-grade digital cameras, Super 8 footage, and iPad-recorded digital video, is essentially about Lee’s proverbial Bible and iPad. As he is wont to do, Lee ends his film with an ecstatic postscript, an exuberant montage of behind-the-scenes and test footage. Working on his smallest narrative budget since She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s film is a loving, astonishingly vital testament to the perseverance of the medium, a colorful rebuke to the seemingly insurmountable monetization of an art form, and a dizzyingly brilliant treatise on how little and how much your origins matter.
The care that Image Entertainment has put into the A/V transfer of Red Hook Summer won't set any industry standard, but it should; if only all small, neglected masterpieces looked and sounded this great on Blu-ray. Spike Lee's film favors bold colors (lots of reds, a healthy amount of blues and yellows) and this 1080p transfer makes every shade pop beautifully, beginning with hip garb Flik dons as he enters Enoch's apartment to the sublime montage of images of Red Hook that cap the film. The transfer's clarity overall is excellent, picking up detailed textures in clothing and buildings throughout the projects that serve as the film's setting. Black levels are beautifully inky, and are most impressive during Enoch's post-beating walk home. And like most of Lee's film, music plays an integral role to Red Hook Summer and the audio transfer creates a booming, seamless track rife with auditory nuance. The dialogue is preserved crisply and with utmost clarity out front, while the back end holds a steady, engaging balance between the Judith Hill tracks, Bruce Hornsby's lively score, and a cornucopia of sound effects and off-screen dialogue.
There are only two major extras included here, but they cover a large breadth of the work that went into the film and its place in Lee's oeuvre. The filmmaker's commentary track is involved, passionate, and hugely informative about the production of Red Hook Summer, as well as casting and the post-production. He seems especially engaged when speaking of his performers and how he got them on board for the project. The behind-the-scenes featurette, clocking in at a little under 30 minutes, fills in any blanks left out by Lee's commentary and gives a good sense of the camaraderie that went into the film. A music video and a trailer are also included.
Image Entertainment packages their Blu-ray release of Spike Lee's astonishing latest with an A/V transfer and director's commentary worthy of sincere, ecstatic praise.