Spike Lee wrote, directed, and starred in his two early masterpieces, She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing, but somewhere around 1998’s overwrought He Got Game, the phrase “written by Spike Lee” stopped inspiring excitement and began engendering dread. Lee has directed some terrific films over the past decade, but they’ve all been documentaries (When The Levees Broke, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise), performance films (Passing Strange), or studio projects written by others (25th Hour, Inside Man). And he’s all but stopped acting, save for the occasional clumsy cameo. Red Hook Summer, Lee’s latest, and the first narrative film he’s written (or co-written, in this case with novelist James McBride, who also wrote Lee’s little-loved Miracle At St. Anna and the novel it was based upon) since the unholy mess of 2004’s She Hate Me, illustrates why even Lee’s fans are right to view his intensely personal projects with skepticism. The film’s 121-minute running time is similarly cause for concern. Lee can be tight and focused as a gun-for-hire, but he’s always viewed personal projects as irresistible invitations to self-indulgence and overreaching. Red Hook Summer is no exception.
Lee’s micro-budgeted labor of love casts Jules Brown as a comfortably middle-class black 13-year-old who uses the video camera on his iPad 2 as a buffer between himself and the outside world. Brown enjoys a comfortable life in Atlanta until his mother sends him to live with his defiantly old-fashioned bishop grandfather (Clarke Peters) in Brooklyn for an eventful, life-changing summer. Brown is like most cinematic children: alternately bland and irritatingly precocious. He doesn’t have the presence or magnetism to carry a film, and McBride and Lee—who distractingly returns to acting as Mookie, the pizza-delivery man he previously played in Do The Right Thing, thus making this a weird semi-sequel to that classic—don’t make his job any easier by burdening him with stiff dialogue that would defeat even a seasoned thespian, or by pairing him with a ferocious force like Peters.
As a man fighting for the soul of his community and his people because he fears his own soul may be beyond redemption, Peters delivers a volcanic, enigmatic, yet tender performance, especially during a third act that takes his character down dark roads and comes close to redeeming an often clunky and leaden melodrama. Like so much of Lee’s ferociously flawed, vital oeuvre, Red Hook Summer oscillates between extremes: it’s borderline-amateurish one moment and heartbreaking the next, a God-fearing, godforsaken mess that could only have come from Lee, whose strengths have always been inextricable from his weaknesses.