Spike Lee took the stage to a slightly baffled crowd for the Q&A after the premiere of Red Hook Summer, but some vocal audience members changed that tone pretty quickly. One of the world's most famous New Yorkers had stepped onstage in a big, blue New York Giants vest, and near the front several in the crowd shouted "We're going to the Super Bowl!" Lee cheered, proclaimed "Brooklyn is in the house!" and pointed out he and his crew had doubled the Utah population of black people by attending Sundance.
Stalking up onstage with the microphone in hand Lee had something of a preacher about him, which he may have picked up making Red Hook Summer, which is an odd combination of coming-of-age story and deeply emotional examination of the role of the church and God in the black community. The Wire and Treme's Clarke Peters plays a pastor whose Little Piece of Heaven church is the bedrock for a slowly dwindling population in Red Hook, a working class neighborhood near the water in Brooklyn that, like many parts of the borough, is now seeing gentrification creep over it. Huge swaths of the movie are given over to the pastor's rambling, sometimes hysterical sermons, in which he condemns gentrification and rap music and war in a single turn of phrase, an older man trying desperately to hang on to a community that's changing fast without him.
Part of that change is represented by his grandson Flik (Jules Brown), taken by his mother from his bourgie Atlanta home to spend the summer with his grandfather. Flik is told early by his new friend Chazz (Toni Lysaith) that he "talks white," he goes to a prep school and records most of his Red Hook summer experiences with an iPad 2, the footage sometimes morphed through Instagram-esque filters that read 100% hipster. As writer and director Lee often seems trapped between these two worlds, giving his film over to long scenes in which two older characters lament how kids these days are being raised, but also energetic montages of Flik and Chazz exploring the city together, talking about their dreams or getting into good old-fashioned trouble. Even some of those troubling white gentrifiers get their moment, as the pastor begins to work with Mister Kevin, a twenty-something white guy who leads a swimming day camp but refuses to teach the word of God.
It's clear why Lee was ready to tackle another Brooklyn story, and his brief appearance as Mookie, along with some even more direct references, set Red Hook Summer up as Do The Right Thing for a new, maybe even more complicated generation. But only the briefest moments of this movie feel as lucid and sharp as Do The Right Thing, as Red Hook Summer chases dozens of thematic ideas but only really nails a handful of them. The examination of religion and scripture and the aging churchgoing population is a powerful thread throughout the film, but the gang members who try to steal Flik's iPad feel rudely sketched, Flik and Chazz's tentative romance drops out for huge chunks of the film, and once a huge revelation is dropped half an hour before the end, all chance of resolution for any other stories is eliminated. And while Peters dominates the screen every instant he's onscreen, his younger co-stars are far shakier, and though their story is sweet their awkward dialogue scenes slow the film down badly.
There are also precious few moments of Lee's signature stylish staging, with many scenes playing out in flatly lit long takes, or with music carrying over scenes long after it emphasizes any of the action. Red Hook Summer was shot in just a few weeks, and it shows-- the movie could easily lose half an hour of its 130 minute running time, and any number of scenes seem to have been shot based on Lee's first draft. It's not surprising to see Lee throw too much into a film and lose focus in the process, but it's especially frustrating given the fine grasp he has on most of the subject matter, and the Do The Right Thing references that remind you of how powerful his work can be when he's really on point.
The audience at last night's premiere seemed to react to all of this in every conceivable way-- there were walkouts but also standing ovations, and tweeted reactions that claimed it was everything from a return to form to one of the worst things that ever premiered at Sundance. I'm not sure how well-received Red Hook Summer will be outside of an excited festival audience, or if Lee will be willing to trim down the film to make it slightly more palatable. But nobody tells Brooklyn stories the way Lee does, and for all the fat in the movie that ought to be trimmed, there's enough powerful stuff in there to make the case that Lee's New York is a place worth visited.