After the bloated and disjointed WWII epic Miracle of St. Anna, Spike Lee returns home to the present-day New York City borough of his youth with Red Hook Summer, the director’s fifth entry in his ongoing chronicles of “the Republic of Brooklyn.” A coming-of-age story at heart, the film follows a middle-class Georgia boy named Flick (Jules Brown) who’s forced to spend his summer vacation in the sweltering-hot Red Hook housing projects with his devout Methodist grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). It’s a seemingly straightforward fish-out-of-water scenario, one wrought with miscommunication, generational conflicts, and class division. But Lee complicates this familiar formula by playing against our expectations in regard to character motivation and tone, revealing dark truths beneath the routines of everyday life.
Red Hook Summer is initially memorable for its vibrant hues—those bursts of neon yellow, purple, and green found in the set design and the characters’ clothing, all heightened by Kerwin DeVonish’s blown-out digital cinematography. As Enoch introduces Flick to various neighbors and parishioners in the early stages of the film, the exaggerated color schemes express the heightened perspective of a child taking in a completely foreign lifestyle for the first time. If the exterior world of Red Hook is flushed with markers of growth and vitality, Enoch’s domicile is mostly barren, an almost puritanical representation of his faith. Flick instantly rebels against his grandfather’s strict dogma and retreats outward to explore the boundaries of Red Hook, mostly with Chazz (Toni Lysaith), an asthmatic girl his own age who becomes the first person to call bullshit on Flick’s judgmental highbrow mentality.
Meagerly structured by three pivotal sermons orated by Enoch, who preaches in a fiery brand of church-speak that echoes off the contained walls of his house of worship, dubbed Little Piece of Heaven, Red Hook Summer mostly feels like a series of vignettes where the focus is Flick’s evolving sense of community, faith, and family. Eventually, Flick begins to see Enoch’s teachings as a way of dealing with his own pent-up angst, and as a result the boy becomes more at peace with his new and jarring surroundings. The developing relationship between Enoch and Flick, one that gradually moves from conflict to comfort, is uprooted yet again during a pivotal moment late in the film that reveals their newly found sense of safety and trust as a devastating façade. This sudden shift shows how repression is tied to misguided religious fundamentalism, a dark undercurrent always simmering below the film’s extended dialogue sequences. This motif makes Red Hook Summer a deceptively simple film, tonally breezy until it becomes thunderous.
Lee can’t help but overtly politicize the aspects of civic injustice and social inequality (gentrification, pollution, drug dealing) that plague Red Hook’s residents, but he also focuses intensely on the trauma plaguing specific individuals. When Flick looks at a picture of his dead father (a soldier killed in Afghanistan) on an iPad, Lee lingers on the boy’s face, his sad eyes yearning for some solace in the bright glimmer of the LCD screen. Lee later captures, during one of his signature floating dolly shots, an angry man walking down the church aisle, creating a striking image of innocence lost. There’s an immediacy to Red Hook Summer that’s been absent in Lee’s work since 25th Hour, a sense of the personal toll that modern-day institutions take on the regular Joe.
Interestingly, the judgmental attitude Flick personifies early in Red Hook Summer eventually reveals itself in Enoch’s own sermons later in the film, as powerful internal demons begin to erode his ideology, and more importantly taints the way his flock views the sanctity of religion. Peters, who signified diligence and moral rectitude on The Wire, inhabits a far more complex role here. His character is at once passionate, condescending, charming, and vindictive, someone Flick initially finds fascist but eventually adopts as a kind of surrogate father. “Red Hook is a window to the world,” Enoch tells his grandson during a bonding moment, but this quote represents a double-edged sword thematically. While Enoch is referring to the diversity of experience and culture in the borough, Lee reveals his character’s words to be a critical foreshadowing to the sudden traumas that can spring up from the unlikeliest of places.
The seamless juxtaposition of faith and pain, innocence and guilt, allows Red Hook Summer to transcend Lee’s occasional bombastic moments and become a strong examination of internal suffering. During a climactic scene, Enoch’s Little Piece of Heaven is transformed—spoiler herein—into a place of trauma, an emotional can of worms that unleashes the repression hiding inside each major character. It’s amazing then that the film ends in such hopeful fashion, with Flick experiencing a hyper-realized dream sequence as he departs for his home in the South. While Red Hook Summer is deeply attuned to the way people “hide in corners,” as Enoch so aptly puts it, the film is also about the process of realization, the ongoing quest to appreciate change as inevitability instead of fighting against it.