Arts & Events
Some films merely disappoint. Others aggravate. Spike Lee's third return to Brooklyn falls in the latter category. This latest Spike Lee Joint (filmed in just 18 days) is an entertaining but wildly dis-jointed beast of a film—paved with good intentions but plagued with conflicting road signs and pitted with plot holes.
The false notes begin with the movie poster. It shows the film's two eighth-grade protagonists, Flik Royale and Chazz Morningstar (played by engaging young stars Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith) kneeling alongside Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clark Peters), the head of a struggling Brooklyn church. The kids have their hands pressed together in prayer and all three are smiling.
This image is in no way true to the story.
The poster copy tells us that Flik, a "sullen young boy from middle-class Atlanta," discovers — through the love of local teen Chazz and preacher grandpa Enoch — that "the world is a lot bigger, and perhaps a lot better, than he'd ever imagined."
Capital B. Capital S.
What Flik discovers in the course of the film is (1) Brooklyn's Red Hook can't match the greenery and calm of Atlanta, (2) his granddad is prone to oppressing and publically humiliating him, (3) the local thugs will steal his most precious belongings, and (4) trusted adults are capable of the most heinous crimes.
The film begins hopefully with fluid, well-choreographed (almost dancing) camerawork. Flik enters Red Hook hiding behind his iPod 2 (product-placement alert), warily recording the strange new world around him with a filmmaker's detachment. The editing that integrates the images on Flik's iPod screen with Lee's simultaneous film footage is deftly executed.
[Technical footnote. In one great editing stunt, two characters are shown ambling down a sidewalk. The camera — on street level — catches a white van entering an intersection in the background at the end of the block. In the next scene, the camera is looking down from a rooftop. We see the characters continuing to walk — as the van finishes crossing the intersection. The eye does a quick double-take, looking for the first camera set-up — but the sidewalk is empty! Apparently, the van was hired to drive through the intersection twice. Two shots, two angles, spliced together for one subliminal two-second visual jolt. Full marks!]
Looking for the Hooks
The problems begin when the story kicks in. While the young actor debuting as Flik (sporting the best 'Fohawk since Mr. T) is convincing, the young first-timer playing Chazz is not. She is merely playing Chazz. It's earnest line-reading, not seamless acting. She has sass and a luminous smile, but it's hard to believe some of the scripted dialogue the kids are called on to exchange.
Going in, we are never told why Flik's mom travels all the way from Atlanta to drop her only child off at his grandfather's door to spend the summer. She turns down Bishop Rouse's invitation to come inside and catch up on family gossip. Sorry, she's got a cab waiting outside. (And, given a serious plot turn later in the story, you might be left wondering "What was she thinking?" when she decided to bring her son to Red Hook.)
Adding to the lack of discovery is the fact that Flik is essentially "confined to quarters" for most of the film — holed up in the bishop's apartment or forced to work in the bishop's struggling Brooklyn church. Flik is rarely seen exploring the streets of Red Hook. There is only one time where he is shown experiencing an adventure that might be something to write home about — a single afternoon spent kayaking on the Hudson.
As for Flik's "love affair" with Chazz, it mostly consists of superficial bickering — the swapping of street lingo and yo-momma insults. They are pals, at best. There is no hint that the kids are engaging in what the bishop calls "sharing spit." (And is this really the best phrase we could expect from two talented screenwriters like Spike Lee and James McBride — the latter an award-winning writer whose memoir, The Color of Water, sold 2.2 million copies was translated into 16 languages?).
The film offers only a few "warm, human" moments (and the best, ironically, comes in the form of a late-night online mom-son iChat exchange) and there are not nearly as many laughs as one might expect. The film's indisputable high points include three full-steam sermons in the Little Piece of Heaven church, delivered with volcanic energy by Bishop Rouse (OK, let's go with the joke — the sermons are "Rousing") and backed by a wailing organ and orgiastic church choir wailings.
There is a standout performance by Thomas Jefferson Byrd as the soused Deacon Zee whose "guzzling the Devil's milk" ramblings — about the stock market, Apple shares and the black community's inability to produce anything of economic value beyond "rapping" — soar to near-Shakespearean heights. The problem with this standout performance is that it stands out too much. These scenes could be cameos plucked from an entirely different film. The performance comes across as a "director's gift" to a talented actor. (In fact, Byrd is a Lee regular who has appeared in four previous Joints.)
Several talented women share a number of supporting roles but it's the men who get to chew most of the meat.
In one scene late in the film, a riveting in-your-face soliloquy deliver by Colman Domingo takes the film off in a whole new direction. It's an astonishing and powerful scene. But, again, it seems to belong in another movie.
And there is a debatable directorial choice involving an accusation of child molestation. The mere accusation would have been sufficient. There absolutely was no need for a flashback to reenact the seduction of a six-year-old boy by an adult reciting the Biblical Song of Solomon. (The only thing this gratuitous scene of Baptist-on-Baptist crime seems to accomplish is to take some of the pedophilic heat off the miscreants in the Catholic Church.)
Was it the intention of Red Hook Summer to render Christianity as a good-natured fraud — little more than an endless recitation of feel-good platitudes? ("God made everything in Red Hook and everything is good and beautiful.") Sure, it makes people feel protected and blessed, but in the greater context of Red Hook reality, faith seems to be a matter of desperation, tradition and self-deception. (The church is in heavily in debt but "God will provide." Except, He don't.)
Flik offers a welcome antidote to his granddad's (literal) bible-thumping insistence that the young man needs to "accept Jesus." Flik challenges Enoch to provide any proof of God's existence, let along evidence of His beneficial guidance and support. Flik even has the audacity to ask why all the imagery in his grandpa's church depicts the traditional "White Jesus." All Enoch has to offer in response is the usual mouthful of dusty clichés.
You may find yourself hoping that Flik will turn the tables on Enoch and convert the bishop to adopt common sense over Communion. It doesn't happen. None of the characters changes their initial worldview. The characters are all linear; there are no "character arcs" in Red Hook.
There is an odd scene near the end where Enoch and Flik are asked to ID some thugs who assaulted them in a park. "There were six witnesses," the cops explain but, for some reason, Enoch and Flik (not the witnesses) are hauled in to view a line-up. They refuse to become snitches. The scene goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. It only seems to exist so that one cop can sigh, "That's Red Hook, baby," while the other cop takes 15 seconds to pronounce the longest, slowest "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeet" in film history.
On the plus side: The camera work is colorful and brilliant (except for the inconsistent use of grainy, overexposed, jittery 16-mm footage that appears inexplicably from time to time), the writing is occasionally stirring (as when Deacon Zee laments Red Hook as a place where children die because of asthma and the lack of lights after the sun goes down).
And best of all: a soundtrack that explodes with vitality (much of the credit due to soul artist Judith Hill who has a debut album coming out soon). And, speaking of credits, do yourself a favor: stay in your seat through the credits and experience the music. Especially, the closer, the Morehouse College Glee Club performing "Zachariah and the Scaly Tree," with a lead vocal by the amazing "Thunder" Johnson.