The Sundance Review Revue: Spike Lee's RED HOOK SUMMER
Spike Lee’s best movies are always polarizing. DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, BAMBOOZLED; Lee has built his reputation on provocative, controversial cinema. In that regard at least, Lee’s new film, RED HOOK SUMMER, finds the director in fine form. It divided the Park City crowd, and then Lee himself took the stage for a Q&A that got them really riled up.
Initial press reports described RED HOOK SUMMER as a sort-of sequel to DO THE RIGHT THING, but Spike wanted to make it very clear that’s not the case. “Please tell [people],” he told the audience, according to Moviefone, “that this is not a motherfucking sequel to DO THE RIGHT THING!” Okay, Spike, duly noted. This is not a motherfucking sequel to DO THE RIGHT THING.
What it is, apparently, is the story of a 13-year-old boy from Atlanta named Flik (Jules Brown) sent by his mother to spend the summer in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn with his grandfather Enoch (The Wire‘s Clarke Peters), who works as a preacher. The film shows us Red Hook and its inhabitants (including Lee’s Mookie from DO THE RIGHT THING) through Flik’s eyes, and also features several of Enoch’s fire-and-brimstone sermons about the state of the black community. Apparently there’s also a drastic plot twist in the third act that shifts the entire tone and tenor of the film, but I don’t know what that twist is. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t.
I do know that the film was as divisive as any that’s played at Sundance ’12 so far. At least one critic tweeted that it joins the ranks of HOUNDDOG and DOWNLOADING NANCY amongst “the worst movies to ever premiere at Sundance.” But other critics absolutely adored it. Andrew O’Hehir from Salon called it a “very special movie” and said that while some of his colleagues wanted Lee to trim RED HOOK SUMMER by half an hour, he completely disagreed, writing “They simply don’t like what Lee’s trying to do here, and that’s fair enough. But RED HOOK SUMMER, like Lee’s other personal, Brooklyn films, isn’t about telling a story. It’s about capturing a mood and a moment, a place and its people. It’s about heart and soul, and whatever its flaws, this film has those things in abundance.”
Other reviews found those flaws too abundant for such a blanket recommendation. Katey Rich from Cinema Blend, who noted that the range of reactions to RED HOOK SUMMER ran the gamut from walkouts to standing ovations, said that the film pales in comparison to DO THE RIGHT THING — a comparison inevitable, (motherfucking) sequel or not, due to the setting and the presence of Mookie. “Only the briefest moments of this movie feel as lucid and sharp as DO THE RIGHT THING,” she wrote. “[Lee] chases dozens of thematic ideas but only really nails a handful of them.”
Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly was even more disappointed, calling the film not just a letdown but also “a bit of an ordeal.” “It’s a messy, disorganized dud, and not just because it lacks structure,” he wrote, “What it’s missing is a moral center we can fasten on to. Watching it, I got the feeling that Spike Lee had shot a lot of scenes and tossed them together, as if working independently of a studio meant being able to let go of discipline and do anything he wanted.”
That’s an interesting observation, particularly in light of Lee’s comments following the screening, where, prompted by a question about what he would have done differently if RED HOOK SUMMER had been financed by a major studio (from Chris Rock, of all people!), the director launched into a lengthy, profane diatribe against Hollywood and its depiction of African-Americans. According to EW‘s blow-by-blow account, Lee said “I didn’t need a motherfucking studio telling me something about Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they’re gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? Fuck no!” Again, duly noted.
With some Sundance movies, negative or even mixed reviews are a bad sign. Not here. To me, the variety of responses to RED HOOK SUMMER means Lee is back where he belongs: exploring new territory, saying what other directors won’t, and pushing some (motherfucking) buttons. Twitter, your thoughts?
“RED HOOK SUMMER is grand, messy, beautiful, horrible. Just like NYC, just like life. It’s essential viewing, despite its problems.” — Jordan Hoffman, IFC.com
“Best things about Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER is the color and flavor. Chroma color, atmospheric flavor, colorful emotions, saturations.” — Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
“Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER is his most interesting/ambitious film in yrs, tho the last section will be polarizing. #Sundance” — Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
“RED HOOK SUMMER is Spike Lee’s best attempt to duplicate DO THE RIGHT THING but replaces racial tension with religious controversy.” — Ethan Anderton, FirstShowing.net
“Bad child actors only accentuate the muddled narrative of RED HOOK SUMMER and make it harder to sit through” — Erik Childress, eFilmCritic.com
To find for Sundance screenings of RED HOOK SUMMER, go to Sundance.org.