As we’ve mentioned a few times during our coverage of Do the Right Thing this week, its sharp focus on race relations is as relevant today as it was in 1989. Strangely enough, the Brooklyn depicted in the film has drastically changed, however. As gentrification has transformed the area, you are hard pressed to find real estate in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood for less than a cool million. Director Spike Lee, unable to recognize the communities he grew up in and connected with so well in his masterpiece, has openly expressed concern of this trend. The time seems ripe to revisit the world of Do the Right Thing with both the heightened racial divide and demographic changes in mind, right? Well, you may not have recognized that Lee has already done so. Sorta.
Lee’s 2012 film Red Hook Summer didn’t get much press or critical praise, but I was definitely interested in finally catching the film within this context. The film centers around a housing project in Red Hook where Flik Royale is spending his summer with his grandfather Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse [The Wire alum Clarke Peters]. Flik strongly represents the new millennial, eternally tied to technological devices, questioning everything, and living a vegan lifestyle. This quickly creates tension with his traditional, religious, red meat-eatin’ grandfather. Since this conflict is written by the older generation there is certainly a “get off my lawn” feeling at times.
Right away, the film shows off Lee’s strong interest in community. After Flik is dropped off with the Bishop, we go on a tour of sorts around the project. We meet a number of different characters through small interactions [including the return of Mookie, still delivering pizzas after all these years] and quickly get the lay of the land on how this community works. It isn’t as dynamically presented but Brooklyn is still a vibrant playground for Lee. And it’s still too damn hot out.
Centering the film around a child definitely serves a different tone than Do the Right Thing without the hard edge or the anger—though I’m not sure the older, more mature Spike Lee has that edge in him, anyway. “Fight the Power” is traded in for an ever-present soundtrack of church hymns and easy listening R&B pop that only gets in the way of the emotional moments. The incredible direct-address segments are replaced by Da Good Bishop’s sermons [a preclude to the centerpiece scene of Chi-Raq], which are well performed by the charismatic Peters. They address a number of topics, including gentrification, and are generally well written even if they don’t have the same punch and certainly aren’t as provocative.
...that is until a plot twist comes out of the blue around the 90-minute mark—I won’t spoil it because there is no way you’d see it coming [telling you a twist is coming is unfortunate enough, though maybe you’ll be able to brace yourself for it]. It provides an opportunity for Lee to explore a new social issue, but it happens so suddenly and late in the film that there is absolutely no time to develop what he wants to say. Lee chooses to really attack the issue without any subtlety when it could have elevated the film instead of stopping it in its tracks. The film completely recontextualizes a major character, asking if he can “do the right thing” for his sins. I guess the third act is audacious in its own way, but almost entirely for the sake of being audacious and not at all pleasing.
It isn’t fair to judge Red Hook Summer on the same scale as Do the Right Thing. Even if they are connected within the same world and interested in some of the same themes, the filmmaking is just in a different place. It isn’t without vision but supremely lacks the vital tone. On its own terms, Red Hook Summer is fine. Spike Lee’s voice is still important but the aesthetic of his younger self is tough to duplicate. But that really isn’t Red Hook Summer’s most negative quality as it tries to do too much by the end and for an inexplicable reason. If Lee was trying to make a film that settles on its ultimate comment, he surely could have in a cleaner and more thoughtful way. Do the Right Thing may be thematically and narratively messy, but it always knows what it is. Red Hook Summer swings big, but its messiness ultimately causes it to fall apart.