“We live in a world of should-not-be.”
Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer (2012) is the story of Silas “Flik” Royale, a thirteen-year-old African-American boy from Atlanta who is sent to live with his “old school” preacher grandfather Bishop Enoch in the Brooklyn projects for the summer. Although we don’t really know the reasoning behind this living arrangement, the juxtaposition between a vegan, atheist, private-school teenager from the south and his zealous, Bible-thumping, bishop grandpa from the north creates instant intrigue. Flik grudgingly commences his summer vacation by working at Bishop Enoch’s church “Little Piece of Heaven” and slowly adapts to his conventional lifestyle before meeting Chazz, a cute and religiously devout girl his own age, who starts to draw him out of his sullenness. Despite his grandfather’s persistent attempts at converting Flik’s soul (and getting him to put away his iPad “box”), the summer is going pretty well until Flik and the entire community discover something crooked about Bishop Enoch’s past (spoilers ahead).
At times, Red Hook Summer flaunts an “indie” texture in the stylist sense of the term. The spontaneous-feeling storyline, focus on human complexities, endearing soundtrack, nostalgic vibes, and overall quirkiness of the film come across as Spike Lee’s own experimentation with indie-ness. In the end, however, the film turns out to be more of an aimless drama that culminates in a sudden plot twist than any sort of real attempt at making Spike Lee’s own version of Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson films.
Lee’s films never shy away from the controversial, and Red Hook Summer is no exception. Race, religion, and hypocrisy emerge as the biggest themes in this messy story. Almost without missing a beat, the film makes references to pictures of “white Jesus” on the wall and Flik’s “talking like a white boy” within the first few scenes. The most explicit racial snapshots involve an angry white woman yelling at Flik and Chazz to “go back to your home and stay there!” after catching them leaving doodles on her wet cement in the wealthier section of the city. Not to mention the clash between Flik’s middle class upbringing and his introduction to the rougher side of Brooklyn.
Religion is another big theme as represented by Bishop Enoch in the context of black Baptist Christianity. Right away we see the bishop’s religious fervor, which is at the forefront of his character, although not devoid of genuine love for his congregation or grandson. Even a brief, friendly exchange between Bishop Enoch and the local Jehovah’s Witness preacher reveals something about a theological awareness. We also get a glimpse at two contrasting eschatologies represented by Bishop Enoch and Deacon Zee. While Bishop Enoch truly sees his church as a “Little Piece of Heaven” and Red Hook as a “window to God’s inspiration”, Deacon Zee, who also happens to be a blundering alcoholic, can only see it as a hotbed of death, debt, and decay. If there’s a battle waging between the good and ugly, Bishop Enoch has placed his bets on the good and Deacon Zee has placed his on the ugly. Either way, Spike Lee wants us to see that both good and ugly exist side by side in Red Hook.
Finally, the biggest theme of all is the problem of hypocrisy. Bishop Enoch’s secret is uncovered when we find out that he molested a child from his old church and then transferred to “Little Piece of Heaven” in Red Hook in order to escape his past, a sort of Roman Catholic Church scandal of the Baptist church variety (although the flashback scene to his pedophilic relationship seemed unnecessary). If Flik hid behind his iPad at the beginning of the film, Bishop Enoch hid behind his church. Even though Bishop Enoch claims to have repented long ago, the now grown-up Blessing Rowe returns partly to call him out publicly and partly in hopes that he will finally make amends to the little boy he harmed. Rather than using this moment as an opportunity to humble himself and beg forgiveness, however, Bishop Enoch runs from his mistakes again. The film ends disappointingly for Bishop Enoch. For Flik and Chazz, a selfless trade between Flik’s iPad and Chazz’s cross necklace seals their innocent courtship as Flik rides away to the airport.
Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer is a wannabe-endearing film about the complexities of a grandson-grandfather relationship that also addresses sensitive issues such as race, religion, and hypocrisy. While the film does lack cinematic cohesion at times especially regarding the unresolved plot twist, perhaps Spike Lee’s movie itself is consistent with his argument that goodness coexists with ugliness. Perhaps this film is more clear-sighted than we realize and more true than we understand.