Partly paying homage to Red Hook, Brooklyn, partly a loss of innocence story on many, many levels, partly a commentary on churches across America, Red Hook Summer (2012) thrusts its main character Flick (Jules Brown) and the audience into a hot and confusing summer in the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Overall, the film is as much an experience as it is a narrative and as such feels more "spacious" than what some of us would consider the "usual" Spike Lee film.
Images bathed in vivid colors lead us through Lee's Red Hook where he continues his focus on problems facing the Black community, such as asthma and the relentless drug problem. His updated themes are also noteworthy: gentrification, the economy, and technological shifts with each playing an important part in the story. Regarding the latter, for example, young Flick carries an iPad 2 throughout the film -- making movies instead of playing videogames like his predecessors Shorty (Peewee Love) in Clockers (1995) and the young Black male hostage in Inside Man (2006).
There are a couple of unanswered questions that linger, longer than some of us may appreciate: like why a middle-class boy has to leave Atlanta to spend his summer in a housing project in Brooklyn and why is he just now meeting his grandfather Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters). But the relationship that unfolds between Flick and Da Good Bishop quickly takes center stage in the story. What radiates around each of them are other stories of loss and hope nestled in the red brick buildings that make up this world.
Lee is very deliberate when it comes to doling out information in this coming of age tale. Characters have much more underneath the surface of what they reveal to us initially and one leaves the film with questions as well as answers, which is not unusual for a Lee film. What resonates throughout is Clarke Peters' performance, which is exceptional. We spend much time navigating his character as we watch him traversing his complicated multilayered life as a Bishop, father, grandfather, and community figure. Going deeper into his character we see that he also assumes the role of a hope dealer, nutritionist, tradition keeper, and dreamer as he prepares the neighbors for "old timers day" at the church. Going even deeper, he begins to reveal himself to us...
I am already thinking about how I would teach this film. The first thing that comes to mind is from Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art -- "Principles of Film Form" The 5 General Principles: (1) Function; (2) Similarity and Repetition; (3) Difference and Variation; (4) Development; (5) Unity/Disunity. I will not give away too much here but the best reading of this film comes from paying very close attention to similarity and repetition (#2), making careful note of how things differ or vary (#3) with each cycle, and therein lies the best understanding of the development (#4) of the story.