On Saturday I saw “Red Hook Summer,” the latest in Spike Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series (of which 1989′s terrific “Do the Right Thing” is the most famous member). The plot is straightforward–a rebellious boy’s mom sends him to her father, a preacher in Brooklyn, and he spends a summer falling in love and learning painful truths about the world and his own family. That’s pretty much the only straightforward thing about this meandering, confused movie, which throws a lot of rich and provocative material onto the table but seems to wander away without delving deeply into any of it. The movie doesn’t end so much as it gives up.
Early into “Summer’s” two hours, the D.C. audience was really into it: We laughed with recognition when Brooklyn girl Chazz caught our hero Flik stealing potato chips from the church and busted out a perfect tattletale’s “Oooooohhhhhhh!” (I swear I heard that exact noise every other day of my childhood.) We were thrilled when Spike Lee himself turned up onscreen reprising his “Do the Right Thing” role as Mookie–still delivering pizzas decades later. When Bishop Enoch preached that there are “too many baby mamas,” several women in the audience “mm-hmm’d” their approval. After a while, though, it started to feel like we were really not getting anything new and a couple people sneaked out.
Those people missed the shocking twist, the dark secret at the heart of Little Peace of Heaven Church. But that twist just sort of lies there, like the dead rat Flik finds in the church basement at the beginning of the movie. The other characters have oddly suppressed reactions. Nobody talks in any serious way about repentance, even though a church has just been confronted with evidence of serious sin. (Nobody talks about sin at all, actually.) The church has already been exposed as fake on many levels–all its Jesuses are blond, and Bishop Enoch’s preaching always returns to the central theme of raising money. But even after the climactic revelation there’s no sense of how the events of the movie have changed any of the characters.
That’s partly because there are no alternatives. There are literally no other churches in the movie, for example. There’s one Jehovah’s Witness lady who is sweet but pathetic; and Flik is a vegan atheist with an iPad, which is not exactly a worldview. If you show the collapse of the only source of hope and authority in a community, I would expect the movie to end on a despairing note–but instead Lee closes with a bizarrely cute montage of cheerful Brooklyn life, which seems to shiver queasily from ice-cold satire to warm nostalgia. Seriously, people, a rainbow appears behind the girl Flik loves, and I don’t think that’s especially ironic. You just can’t end this movie this way.
In the earlier part of the movie I was powerfully reminded of Stew’s musical “Passing Strange,” which Spike Lee himself made into a movie in 2009. “Passing Strange” offers much gentler satire of the black church. But its satire also feels fresher (even though it’s older!) and more lived-in, more real. It also offers actual alternative worldviews and communities. You should watch it; it’s available streaming on Netflix if you have it. It’s not a substitute for “Red Hook Summer” by any means. Lee’s new movie tries to be a much more ferocious assault on money- and power-hungry, self-satisfied black preachers. But Stew’s imagination is larger than Lee’s.
Clarke Peters, as Bishop Enoch, does probably the best acting here. Jonathan Batiste, as coded-gay organist T.K. Hazelton, has a surprising amount of charm and poignancy in a tiny role. (The moment when he underlines one of Bishop Enoch’s polemics against absent fathers by caroling, “They ain’t men!” is played for laughs in a way which struck me as more than a little mean-spirited.) The two children, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, have fantastically expressive faces but when they speak they tend to sound like they’re reciting lines. The film’s infrequent anti-naturalistic touches always make it preachier, giving it a shrill but startlingly empty moral voice.
There will be better movies about shame, cruelty, and doubt in the black church. Those movies will owe Spike Lee a debt, even as they surpass him.