Red Hook Summer ★★½

Littered with flaws and misguided decisions, but I find it hard to take a firm stance against such a clearly personal film from Spike Lee, especially one with such thematic depth. The dichotomy between the Church and religion seems to be the main point of focus here, contrasting the admirable ethos of spiritual enlightenment that illuminates much of the historical dogma of many faiths with the relative evils of the organised structures supposedly built to accommodate such beliefs. Clarke Peters’ central performance is the key to this, an anchor tying down the rest of the film’s loose structure and often messy collection of ideas; elated during the memorable and uplifting sermons, but underlined by an inner tragedy and evil, seething beneath the surface in his mannerisms. Still, his absolute dedication to the faith cannot be denied, but whether his principles can excuse his past desires is the pivotal question that Lee investigates in a screenplay at once bursting with worthwhile ideas, but inarticulate and amateurish when it comes to presenting them in a cohesive manner. In fact, some of the film’s charm stems from this amateur, seemingly underrehearsed nature.

Shot on a micro-budget over 18 days, Red Hook Summer is a continuation in both environment and theme of his very earliest films and this (admittedly often over-romanticised) concept of a filmmaker returning to his roots transplants a story otherwise laden with outdated commentary on technology and the modern state of youth culture into a location with an intangible earthiness which Lee feels very much in his element. After spending a few years dabbling in New Orleans and abroad entirely, Spike’s return to New York sees him examine the structural landscape of the projects not in terms of outside political/societal forces (such as in Clockers or Do the Right Thing) or romantic interpersonal drama (She’s Gotta Have It) but the purely internal struggles between different offsets of African-American culture, all connected by skin colour, socioeconomic standing and, in this case, a religious upbringing. Generational differences and disputes have permeated throughout Lee’s work, but here it is perhaps most overt.

Overall one struggles to know what to make of such a film; one so admirable in intent yet so flawed in execution. There’s entertainment here, and genuine insight and craft also, but to engage with it one must look past editing, pacing, cinematography and narrative cohesion that regresses its director’s talents by almost three decades. Still, though I may prefer BlacKkKlansman in practise, in theory I’d rather Spike continued to make more small-budget, intimate and reflective films such as this… hopefully Netflix can fund some more in the future considering Da 5 Bloods’ success and acclaim.

Elliott liked this review