Filmmaker Spike Lee’s ongoing love affair with New York continues with the engrossing independent film, “Red Hook Summer,” open in theaters today.
It’s summertime in Brooklyn, and Silas “Flik” Royale (Jules Brown), a sullen young boy from middle-class Atlanta, is in a car with his mother Colleen (De’Adre Aziza). They are en route to the Red Hook housing projects, where Flik is being forced to spend the summer with his highly religious grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), whom he will be meeting for the very first time, and the boy clearly is not happy about it.
As the car pulls into the projects, it also becomes evident that Colleen is very uncomfortable in that environment. Telling the driver to wait, she hustles her son up to her father’s unit, where she has a brief, awkward exchange with the Bishop. She then hands Flik a wad of cash, kisses him and runs back to the waiting car as if her hair were on fire. Now resigned to his fate, Flik, clutching his ever-present iPad, enters the apartment with his grandfather.
The bishop, a pillar of the community, is happy to have his grandson with him, and proudly introduces him to all of the colorful characters at Red Hook, most of whom are members of his congregation. There’s Sister Sweet (Kimberly Hebert-Gregory), Mother Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the off-the-wall Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who appears to be suffering from shell shock, or something.
Then there’s the more unsavory element of Red Hook — a shiftless gang led by Box (Nate Parker), a cocky young man who talks a good game, but appears to be relatively harmless. Nonetheless, Bishop tells Flik not to go around flashing that iPad in front of them.
He is then introduced to Sister Sharon Morningstar (Heather Alicia Simms), and it’s when he meets her daughter Chazz (Toni Lysaith), an annoying and feisty female about his age, that he realizes that summer at Red Hook may not be so bad after all. Under Deacon Zee’s “supervision,” the kids spend their days working at the church, bickering about nothing and getting into minor mischief, while Flik documents life at Red Hook with his precious iPad. Between lively Sunday morning services at Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook, he also begins to form an uneasy alliance with his grandfather — but eventually discovers that things aren’t quite what they seem.
Clarke Peters is fascinating as the high and holy bishop, who is determined to set his grandson’s feet on the path of righteousness, even though his estrangement from his daughter hangs like a dark cloud over his head. What drives this intimate film, however, is the captivating chemistry between the kids, with Chazz being the bossy tattletale and Flik doing silly things that boys do — like chasing her with a huge dead rat. Even so, they spend the summer learning from each other, and each does a considerable amount of growing up. Both Brown and Lysaith give charming performances with an urban edge, yet are devoid of the smart-ass attitudes that are so common in today’s teenaged portrayals.
Lee’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his storytelling, although I do question one or two aspects of this particular screenplay, written in tandem with James McBride. However, Lee’s ability to create and develop interesting and offbeat characters keep you engaged throughout the film, and he throws a curveball at the end that you absolutely will not see coming.
While it’s not perfect, “Red Hook Summer,” the latest “Spike Lee Joint,” is a small, quiet picture that packs an emotional punch.