Full disclosure: I am a great admirer of Lee's “Do The Right Thing,” one of the most interesting, innovative, effervescent, engaging, enervating and colorful films of my early adulthood, but that was more than 20 years ago when the director was bursting with ideas and actually had something to say.
Since that time, Lee has lost the plot -- sometimes literally. Instead of building upon the anarchic, amateurish brilliance of “Do The Right Thing,” he has rolled out one mediocre-to-poor film after another (or, as he annoyingly calls them, “joints”).
I have no idea what “Red Hook Summer” is about -- it is about many things, or about nothing (I'm pretty sure Spike Lee doesn't know either).
The movie's threadbare plot concerns a middle-class 13-year-old black boy from Atlanta whose mother drops him off for the summer with her estranged father, Bishop Enoch, who lives and ministers in the projects of Red Hook, in Brooklyn. The boy, whose name is Flik, is withdrawn and uncomfortable in the ghetto, longs to return to his home and is aggravated by his granddad's constant Bible-thumping and preaching.
Flik (and the audience) is puzzled as to why his mother left him in such an environment and seems to spend all his time taking videos with his iPad2 (I wonder how much Apple paid Spike for this blatant piece of product placement?).
Over the next hour (or was it two?), nothing much happens as we meet some of the other residents of the projects -- including Enoch's drunken aide who yammers about failed stock investments; a little girl named Chazz who develops a crush on Flik; Chazz's single mother whom Enoch seems sweet on; and the local hoodlum drug dealers who maintain an uneasy co-existence with Enoch and the other Bible-believing Christians in the 'hood.
There's also a pointless scene where the kids go kayaking (yes, you read that right, kayaking) in the East River; and some utterly unnecessary references to the New York Knicks basketball club and superstar Carmelo Anthony (who spent part of his childhood in Red Hook).
Then, about three-quarters of the way into this dull sludge of a film, a shocking and unexpected twist occurs involving an unpleasant incident from Enoch's past (I won't reveal what this U-turn was to avoid spoiling things for those who have not seen the movie yet, but suffice it to say, it provides a sudden 'jolt,' but makes no sense and is not resolved in any believable way).
And that's it. There's really nothing else going on.
“Red Hook Summer” could have been a fascinating film -- there are many compelling subjects that affect Red Hook and poor urban black America as a whole. The script (and I assume there was a script) briefly touches on some of these topics, but fails to explore any of them with any degree of effort.
Indeed, I would like to have seen the film aggressively address such issues as the class conflict between poor and upwardly-mobile blacks; the creeping gentrification of formerly black ghettoes; the schism between conservative, tradition-bound elderly blacks and the tech-savvy, hip-hop generation; the anger and hopelessness of project dwellers; the hypocrisy of white liberals who pretend to sympathize with blacks in the Barack Obama era; and the growing hostilities between long-established African-Americans and new immigrants from Asia in urban ghettoes, etc,
Any one of these topics would have made a fine film, but Lee either touches on them superficially or ignores them entirely.
Granted, a good movie does not necessarily need a plot, nor even strong acting -- if it has a compelling script, which “Red Hook Summer” sorely lacks.
If Spike Lee's intention was to create a “portrait” of a poor black housing project in 2012, he fails at that, too, since virtually all the characters are either one-dimensional or thinly-drawn.
Thus, the real underlying problem is the 'auteur,' Spike Lee himself.
Lee is to films what the execrable Michael Moore is to documentaries -- neither are true artists, rather, they are propagandists whose fame and notoriety supersedes their work, making their ‘creations’ largely irrelevant.
They are both “pop celebrities” whose sole purpose in life seems to be to maintain their fame and bank accounts (by any means necessary, to quote one of Spike’s idols, Malcolm X).
Lee is one of the most famous people in New York -- he keeps his name in the media constantly by showing up at Knicks games, making incendiary (and well-rehearsed) comments to the press and by endlessly bemoaning “racism.” (The very fact that Lee has had a steady and successful career for 25 years would serve to undermine his accusations that Hollywood is 'racist').
I learned recently that Spike spent much of his childhood not on the mean streets of Red Hook or Crown Heights or Bedford-Stuyvesant, but rather in pleasant, leafy, middle-class, mostly-white Cobble Hill (my old neighborhood). Thus, he knows little about the lives of the poor black people that he frequently depicts in his works -- he is, in fact, a privileged outsider to them.
I will concede that Lee has made some good documentaries -- especially one about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing ('Four Little Girls') and his epic about Hurricane Katrina ('When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts'). So, perhaps he should stick to non-fiction.
Spike Lee is now 55 years old, he is no longer the “next big thing” in films. His directing is sloppy, his writing is puerile and his movies are simply terrible -- he hasn't matured at all.
But perhaps he does not care since he has made a lot of money and has permanent celebrity-row seats at Madison Square Garden.
The ironic thing is that I share Spike's hatred of “mainstream” Hollywood and would also like to see a return to fresh, innovative filmmaking – but the alternatives that Spike Lee offers are even worse.