By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 23, 2012 at 05:49 PM EST
Red Hook Summer
Credit: David Lee

When Spike Lee threw a small fit last night during his Q&A after the premiere of Red Hook Summer, is it because he was angry at Hollywood — or because he sensed that the audience didn’t really like his movie, and he was working off his disappointment by finding a big bad target to hit? My own feeling is that if the film had been better, he might not have been reduced to griping about the movies the Man won’t let him make. For Red Hook Summer isn’t just a letdown. It’s a bit of an ordeal.

The protagonist is a 13-year-old kid with a Mohawk fade named Flik (Jules Brown), a private-school brat from Atlanta who never stops peering through the lens of his iPad, which he basically uses as a video camera. The central character of the movie, however, is Flik’s grandfather, a tall, feisty preacher named Enoch (Clarke Peters), who lives in a housing project that looms over the low-rent squalor of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Flik has been left to spend the summer with Enoch — though it’s established early on that he’s never met the man before (and that his mother, who dropped him off there, hasn’t seen Enoch in years). Right off, a question eats away at us: What self-respecting mom from upper-middle-class Atlanta would leave her kid with an old man in the concrete ghetto who doesn’t even know him? It’s not just a contrivance; it defies common sense. And it’s the first of many things in Red Hook Summer that does.

For a while, we think we’re watching a coming-of-age tale, or maybe a companion piece to that slice-of-the-hood kaleidoscope Do the Right Thing, as Flik gets to know the local denizens and layabouts: bullying young hustlers (led by the magnetic and astoundingly versatile Nate Parker), single moms, old-time church folk (one of them, played by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a garrulous drunk), and a brashly combative but toothy-cute teenage girl named Chazz (Toni Lysaith), who becomes his companion. Lee himself shows up to reprise the role of Mookie, the pizza-delivery guy from Do the Right Thing, and he has a funny bit explaining why he carries his pizzas at a perfect horizontal angle. But even with all these talkers around him, Flik himself never smiles, or changes his expression, or says much of anything that isn’t a dour complaint. He remains an outsider, solemnly observing a neighborhood he hates. And Lee shows no real desire to wrest him — or the movie — away from the firebrand grip of Enoch, who can’t stop preaching, lecturing, proselytizing.

Clarke Peters, from The Wire, is a forceful actor with a great face. In Red Hook Summer, he’s sort of like Morgan Freeman’s ’70s evangelical cousin, with his hair worn long and parted, like an old mop, and his saddened hound-dog eyes glittering with the faith of a true believer. The movie features him at the pulpit in extended, if not endless, preaching scenes, where he wraps his powerful, mellifluous voice around one uplifting rant after another. He hates hip-hop, the media, the Internet; but oh, does he love Jesus! Even when he and Flik are just sitting around the living room, the religious hot spiel pours out of him, as he tells Flik, over and over, that he needs “Jee-sus!” in his life. Had he popped up now and again, Enoch might have been a great supporting character, but Spike Lee makes a bizarre mistake by letting this ebullient crank, with his funky religious dogma, take over the movie. He’s like a windup doll with a mission to save your soul. And then we learn something else about him — a revelation, a real jaw-dropper. But it only makes us go, all the more: Why are we even listening to this man?

Red Hook Summer has some great gospel numbers, but aside from that, it’s a messy, disorganized dud, and not just because it lacks structure. 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 not a smart way to use creative freedom, but more than that, Lee seems confused. The movie he’s come up with is a barely edible casserole of attitudes, since Lee appears to want to embrace the contemporary world (technology, rap, upward mobility) and damn it at the same time. At the end, Flik gives away his iPad, as if it were a junk habit that he’d decided to outgrow. Yet this was the device that he was shooting a movie on. Didn’t Spike Lee see himself in this kid? Maybe not. Maybe, in some strange way, he sees himself in the mad-dog preacher, who loves Jesus so much that he rejects everything else.

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