There are people who understand what Spike Lee aims for with his films and people who don’t. If you don’t, I wouldn’t be able to convince you why what he does for the filmmaking community is so important. Then again, I wouldn’t presume to read Spike Lee’s mind. Let’s just say that I always walk away from a Spike Lee film appreciating his artistry and dedication for traditional filmmaking. The word “traditional” alone might be a turn-off for those who feel movies and technology should be merging at an even faster rate until a Oscar winning performance is made up of pixels. I’m just not there yet and with this film, I’m pretty sure Spike Lee isn’t either.
Red Hook Summer is about a young suburban boy from Atlanta who goes to stay with is estranged grandfather in Red Hook, Brooklyn for the summer. More than just a fish out of water, this kid is an atheist without Jesus. His grandfather is a bishop who clutches the bible everywhere he goes and speaks almost exclusively in the language of scripture. He puts his grandson to work at his church which is struggling to stay afloat in modern times. It’ll be a summer of new experiences and life-changing revelations.
Like many of Spike Lee’s films, the strongest messages come from the insiders; the ones who live the truth day after day, and the truth sometimes hurts. The world has a way of seeping into poor communities eventually turning brother against brother. Spike Lee believes these wars need to be won from within. Be good parents, raise your children right, and they may have a chance to escape a system that continues to perpetuate a contemporary version of slavery.
The film also highlights the hypocrisy of religion’s stranglehold on communities that pray for salvation and subsist on faith to relieve financial woes. Sunday after Sunday, the Good Lord’s messengers ask their parishioners to turn to God for all their problems and yet the problems still exist, Sunday after Sunday. Churches go bankrupt, “good” Christians make reprehensible mistakes, and the staple of forgiveness can easily be trumped by anger and disappointment. Religion is a business in poor areas and like all businesses, the people at the top can’t always make good on their promises.
The film is low-tech view of life in the Red Hook projects. Spike Lee opts for a naturalistic approach which allows the characters and the neighborhood to remain center stage in a story that showcases real life. Maybe you’ve never come face to face with some of the people who exist in here but I assure you, they exist. The urban landscape pops with colors saturated in summer sunshine. Spike Lee is especially good at treating us to glimpses of city life when, for a few months out of the year, New York goes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Summer life is a unique creature with moves, sounds, and an appetite all its own.
I want to add Bruce Hornsby’s score is a wonderful contribution to Red Hook Summer. He tickles the keys like summer sun falling on the piano. The music matches the images perfectly while telling it’s own story.
This is straight-up storytelling without bells and whistles. You may not have realized how much you missed such a style until the film is over. In a summer of explosive blockbuster tentpoles and overused gimmicks, Red Hook Summer is easy to appreciate. Like a jazz trio, it doesn’t take much to transport you to another time and place. The right notes, the right tempo, and you’re there…in Da Hook.