It’s often the performances that help Spike Lee’s characters take that crucial turn from caricature to living, breathing human being. And the performances in Red Hook Summer, which Lee co-wrote with James McBride, based on McBride’s childhood growing up in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing complex, are not the strongest. Clarke Peters is fairly steady as Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, pastor of a tiny neighborhood church, but much of the screen time is given to Jules Brown as Flik, Enoch’s 13-year-old grandson, visiting for the summer from Atlanta, and Toni Lysaith as Chazz, a girl from the neighborhood. And I’m afraid neither novice is experienced enough to turn Lee’s didactic material into the stuff of real life.
That’s too bad, because Red Hook Summer has some compelling stuff on its mind. Essentially, the movie asks if faith is a saving grace or a swindle. Enoch is a steadfast believer, while his grandson watches the passing of the collection plate with a raised eyebrow. The film establishes the gulf between them with easy stereotypes (Enoch wears a giant cross; Flik sneers from behind his iPad) and their “debates” feel stuck to the screenplay page. Save for two notable exceptions. At one point, Enoch points out his window and tells Flik, “Look at everything God made for you,” and we get a montage of everyday, urban beauty. Later, Flik offers a retort that Lee frames as a striking counter-montage. “Where is [God]?” the boy demands, as the camera cuts to an image of the drug dealers who linger outside Red Hook’s doors. “Is he here?” Then another shot of Chazz, who has asthma, dragging on her inhaler. “Is he here?”
Enoch’s response always amounts to a variation on this: “All you got to do is come to Jesus.” The movie clearly considers this weak theology, and instead slips in a compelling third way during a quiet conversation between Enoch and Sharon Morningstar (Heather Simms), Chazz’s mom and one of Enoch’s parishioners. Lamenting an older daughter she lost despite all her Bible thumping, this time, with Chazz, Sharon plans to do more than trust in God: “She’s in my two loving hands, and with God’s help…”
So there’s a lot of talky theology in Red Hook Summer, alongside non-sequitur sequences about gentrification, youth culture, Carmelo Anthony, and social media. As if that wasn’t enough, the movie throws in a third-act reveal that I’ll keep under wraps, except to say that it brings in a subject so massive that there is no way the final minutes can meet the enormity of the implications that the revelation entails. It does, however, allow for an image that should go down as one of the most striking of Lee’s career. During a moment of crisis at church, Enoch raises his face and hands and exhorts, “Beware of false prophets!” The shot begins in close-up, and as it slowly withdraws we can see that the glow of the fluorescent ceiling lights form a pair of crosses in his eyes. Would that more of Red Hook Summer had employed such arresting imagery, rather than inert words.