Sundance 2012: Spike Lee's surreal, shocking 'Red Hook Summer' premiere
Spike Lee’s movie is called Red Hook Summer, but it delivered a few stunning left hooks and right hooks to the audience during its Sunday night debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Going into the Park City showcase, the film appeared to be a coming-of-age story about an Atlanta boy named Flik, who ends up spending the summer with his preacher grandfather in the Red Hook housing project of Brooklyn. And it is that, for about three quarters of the running time. Flik bristles under the watch of his Bible-thumping grandfather (played by The Wire‘s Clarke Peters), gets life lessons from Mookie, Lee’s character from Do the Right Thing (who’s still delivering Sal’s Famous Pizzas two decades later), quarrels with a couple of local gang members, and strikes up a friendship with a troublemaking church girl named Chazz.
In the final stretch of the movie, at the end of yet another long-running sermon from the preacher, Red Hook Summer takes a stark twist (which we won’t spoil here), abandoning the warm childhood story and introducing a disturbing new plot element that divided the audience. At a post-screening Q&A with Lee, things got even more high-octane wild.
Multiplying the black population of Utah? Random appearances by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Chris Rock? A top-of-his-lungs rant against Hollywood that includes the shouted line “they know nothing about black people”?
Here’s an approximate minute-by-minute account of Red Hook Summer‘s aftermath.
8:25 p.m. — Screening ends. There had already been a slow trickle of walkouts, most before the movie’s big twist. As the credits roll, Sundance’s 1,200-seat Eccles theater is a sea of glowing smartphones. Divided but mostly negative reactions bombard Twitter.
8:26 — First negative reaction tweeted by ComingSoon.net’s @WkndWarriorCS: “Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer joins Hounddog, Downloading Nancy and [The Informers] as one of the worst movies to ever premiere at #sundance.”
8:27 — Lee comes out on stage: “What’s the score?” There’s a cacophony of shouts. Someone says, “We WON!” (Turns out some people were not tweeting, but rather checking the Giants-49ers game.) “What! NEW YORK GIANTS!! GOING TO THE SUPERBOWL!!” Lee shouts.
“Is Brooklyn in the house?” Lee asks, drawing cheers from a large group that accompanied him, sitting in the front right of the theater. “We doubled the black population of Utah!” Lee laughs. “Maybe tripled it, up in this room!”
8:28 — Lee begins introducing the cast and crew. One of the first is Nate Parker, who plays a gang member in the movie (and also costarred in last night’s Sundance movie Arbitrage, as well as this weekend’s wide-release World War II fighter pilot drama Red Tails.) “And his costar — not in this movie, but in Red Tails — Cuba Gooding Jr.! Stand up, baby.” Gooding rises and waves to the crowd with an awkward smile. “Go check out Red Tails,” Lee tells everyone.
8:29 — Crew members on Red Hook Summer are introduced, among them musician Bruce Hornsby, who did some of the score for the film. “Now we have the two discoveries, who played Flik and Chazz,” Lee said. “Toni Lysaith and Jules Brown, come on up.” Both are nonprofessionals Lee found in the drama class of his old Brooklyn middle school. Then he introduces their teacher, Edwin G. Robinson.
8:31 — Lee then introduces his lead actor (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD): “Now, the man had a haaaaaard part. It’s very hard, very hard … to make a pedophile a human being. And that’s why I knew I needed a great talent. One of the great actors working today — Mr. Clarke Peters, come on up.”
8:33 — Second negative reaction hits as Erik Childress of efilmcritic.com tweets: “I have so many negative things to say about Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER that I don’t know where to begin.” Moments later, stunned by the out-of-nowhere twist, yours truly tweets via @Breznican: “Okay, so Red Hook Summer ISN’T a coming-of-age movie. It’s a what-the-hell?!? movie.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Steven Zeitchik tweets: “Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer is his most interesting/ambitious film in yrs, tho the last section will be polarizing.” He’s not kidding.
8:37 — First positive reaction hits. Noah Cowan, programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, tweets via @NoahLightBox: “Red Hook Summer: Now THAT’s a complex text. 2 acts of sweet homily + 1 of anticlerical terrorism. And a Bruce Hornsby score!”
8:38 — The first question, somewhat muffled, is about Lee’s feelings about religion. “Alllllll the church stuff came from [co-screenwriter and author] Mr. James McBride,” Lee says. “The only time I went to church was when my parents sent me down South to spend the summers with my grandparents… Next question.”
8:40 — Peters takes a question about the influence of television on kids, and whether it corrupts them. Someone asks a question of singer Judith Hill, who provided several songs in the movie. She says they are not yet available as an album.
8:41 — Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir raves via @andohehir: “Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER is a passionate, painful love letter to Brooklyn, NYC, black America & the black church. Very special movie.”
8:45 — Lee tells the audience, “You are the very first audience that has seen this film. Do me a favor. If you go out and talk about it, please tell ’em this is not a motherf—ing sequel to Do the Right Thing, or Mookie’s Return. This film is what I call another installment in my own chronicles of Brooklyn.”
8:50 — Steve Pond of TheWrap.com tweets: “Spike Lee says that we’re supposed to tell you that Red Hook Summer is not a motherf—ing sequel to Do The Right Thing.” Dozens of others in the audience tweet the same.
8:52 — Hollywood-Elsewhere.com’s Jeffrey Wells issues noncommittal tweet: “Best things about Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer is the color and flavor. Chroma color, atmospheric flavor, colorful emotions, saturations.” Inside the theater, the Q&A is getting intense.
Co-writer McBride is talking about the movie’s point of view on the church. “I still believe in God. I still believe in Jesus,” he says. “In fact, this film has helped me believe in Jesus and believe in God even more.” He then acknowledges that a flashback scene of (again, SPOILER ALERT) molestation “was a scene that we all, everyone here, had some difficulty with.” Peters chimes in: “It’s still difficult, even to talk about now.”
8:55 — A question from the audience — from Chris Rock! “This is a real question!” he says. “You did it, you spent your own money, right? What would you have done differently if you’d actually gotten a bunch of studio money… What else would’ve happened?” There’s a pause. “Would you have blown up lots of s—?” Rock adds, cracking up the crowd.
8:58 — EW’s Adam B. Vary tweets: “RED HOOK SUMMER: Bizarre, flawed, passionate, and that’s just Spike Lee’s rant-y post-screening Q&A, featuring a Chris Rock cameo!”
8:59 — Lee gets very loud, jabbing his finger toward Rock. “We never went to the studios with this film. I told you! I TOLD YOU! … I bought a camera and said we’re gonna do this motherf—ing film ourselves.” He says the plan all along was to make it independently, and bring it to Sundance. “Of course, show it to you, John,” he interjected to the festival director. “So this whole thing was planned out. I didn’t need a motherf—ing studio telling me something about [the neighborhood of] Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they’re gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? F— no!”
9:00 — Lee is really steaming now. “What else can you do? We had to do it ourselves! We shot motherf—ing She’s Gotta Have It for 12 days back in 1986. And I’m now waiting for Universal to do the sequel to Inside Man, my biggest hit ever! I CAN’T WAIT ANYMORE!”
His voice echoes in the hall, which has become whisper-quiet.
“We had to do it OURSELVES! So I went to my trusted friends. Bruce! And then Judith. Now, if Michael Jackson picked her for the This Is It tour, I knew I had to use her!” Lee is shouting at the top of his lungs. The audience tentatively applauds. “James McBride, who wrote Red Hook — the irony is the church we shot the film in is the church his parents built!”
Lee takes a breath. Smiles. Scans the silent crowd. “Sorry for that motherf—ing tirade.”
9:01 — Festival director John Cooper gently suggests a wrap-up, since another movie will be playing in the theater shortly. Lee takes one more question. He seems to be furious. “Who is your question to!?” he barks at the person stumbling through the last Q of the Q&A. It’s a rambling one, vaguely directed at the child actors.
Lee seems annoyed by the complexity of it: “Yo, he’s 14 years old!” The woman in the audience continues to struggle through various observations. “Okay, you have to make it a question,” Cooper says.
He picks up a tambourine from somewhere. It’s apparently a prop from the movie. It’s like he’s preaching his own sermon.
9:02 — People begin standing up and shuffling out. Jones takes a stab at answering. “I’m just going to take what I learned and bring it to whatever else I get offered. And just show other people what I can do.”
Lysaith responds like a smiling A-student: “I have learned a lot from this experience and I will take it forward in whatever experience I have next in my life.”
Someone, it’s difficult to tell from the recording if it’s Lee or McBride, says: “I’m going to get with Jules and figure out everything he learned and then have him teach me.”
With a scattered round of applause, one of the more surreal moments of Sundance 2012 came to an end. Online, however, the conversation continues …
For more Sundance news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican
(*Timeline assembled from Tweet timestamps and the recording run time.)