That Red Hook Black, a strained film about two friends struggling with jobs and family in a bleak, thickly spread economic milieu, is adapted from a play is painfully obvious; that it’s never able to transcend its staginess makes it unbearable. While it’s entirely plausible to imagine Red Hook Black playing at some decent community theater, as a film it can’t even hide in the shadows of its greatest influence, the somewhat similarly themed, Red Hook-inspired On the Waterfront, for which it borrows some of the I-coulda-been-a-contender sentiment, let alone stand on its own as watchable microcinema.
The way Red Hook Black‘s main character, the irritable and gruff Marco (Kyle Fields), periodically brings up the history of his neighborhood (there’s oil in the ground, as alluded to by the film’s title) and family line of shipyard workers initially gives the character color, but quickly becomes heavy, tiresome, and unconvincing. Marco’s pushy way of sharing his background could suffocate a room and stands in stark contrast to the time I once met a person who carried a Brooklyn tote bag with an apple-sized ink stain on it who told me it represented the not-so-well known “oil spill” of Brooklyn’s past. It’s not just Marco who’s disagreeable, it’s the whole of Red Hook Black, a dull film about dull people that harshly hammers home its points—that its characters are lost and working class and New York City has changed over generations and since 9/11—when all it needs is to lightly tap them.
Symptomatic of this, in one unintentionally funny scene, Marco sheds a tear as he recalls with his buddy, Damian (James Jackson), how hard times are. A true sign that director Luis Landivar hadn’t thought this stage adaptation through in film terms, the tear is given a jarring close-up that only makes sense when, in the following scene, we see Marco pinching his brow, a scene that on its own would have given us the mistaken impression that he just has a headache.
Marco’s stresses are compounded because his wife, Elizabeth (Victoria Negri), has Multiple Sclerosis, can’t work, and is needy. He’s tempted sexually by his niece, Olivia (Danielle Lozeau), who his wife has arranged for him to drive her to and from work, because she offers what his wife can’t: youth, beauty, and health. While the predictable domestic drama that unfolds from this setup throughout a series of clunky scenes takes up most of the film’s running time, the story of Damian finding some new romance after a bad divorce is the easier of the two stories to sit through. The acting here is more toned down and natural compared to the way Fields and Negri make their discordant couple seem like they’re being played for the people in nose-bleed seats. But that’s a small silver lining in a film that’s an unpleasant and laborious way to learn, essentially, what the opening of the Ikea in Red Hook could have told you: Times have changed, and possibly for the worse.