Spike Lee's new drama is a warm, casual, incendiary, explosive slice of life that revolves around Silas Royale, a.k.a. Flik. He's a bright, well-raised, success-bound 13-year-old boy from Atlanta whose widowed mother takes him to Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood to meet her father for the first time and to spend the summer with him while she travels.
This setup is rather contrived, and in the final 30 minutes, Lee adds a twist that he doesn't need and doesn't handle well. But if you can get over (i.e., ignore) those humps, Red Hook Summer is an agreeable character-drama-cum-polemic, a lamentation about a checklist of issues facing the African-American Family and Community in America: crumbling schools, lack of hope, street thugs — plenty of bad, but also a winnowing (if muted) optimism.
Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from The Wire) is a Bible-toting, aphorism-spouting Baptist preacher who believes that we all have an obligation to make the good better and to make the better the best. This is his wall of defense against the dangerous elements of the "The Hook," and he's as atavistic as the boy is futuristic: Flik (Jules Brown) lives on his iPad, eats vegan and asks Enoch why Jesus is white in the portrait on his wall. "We don't know what color Jesus is," the old man says, and Silas retorts, "So why is he white?"
Personal stories don't matter as much to Lee here as the role each character plays in his tableau of Brooklyn life, and Red Hook Summer is a little like watching a painting animate in our imaginations. We get some revival services and sermons — "there's a difference between a single mother and a baby mama" — and the characters debate the munificence, and even the existence, of a God who would countenance so much injustice and suffering in the world he created.
Visually unpolished, just as Lee filmed it to be, it's a throwback to his early low-budget work, although perhaps not by choice. (I suspect he would have taken $50 million to make it if someone had offered.) The dialogue is alternately conversational, preachy, clichéd (or is that iconic?), and quick with insight like the best of Lee's films. I've always given Lee credit for the gravity and integrity of his work, and I'm not about to stop now: Despite some missteps, Lee once again sets a good example, both literally and figuratively.