Significantly, Spike Lee is back—not just to his people-mover cameras and sloppy pageant-size emotions, but back to Brooklyn. (Lee hasn’t made a fiction film this pungently rooted in community since 1999’s Summer of Sam.) Red Hook Summer isn’t a sequel to Do the Right Thing, even though the director’s Mookie hogs a shot or two as the world’s most grizzled pizza boy. The new drama, best viewed as a church movie, is a return to the kind of corner-chat indie cinema Lee revolutionized, with an emphasis on a towering performance by The Wire’s Clarke Peters as a local bishop inflamed with the Word. (“Here’s my gangster!” he booms, hoisting a Bible.)
Into this kindly showboat’s custody arrives a grandson, a surly iPad-addicted teen from Atlanta who prefers to go by Flik (Jules Brown). He’s parked in Red Hook for the season, and although Lee leans too hard on his uneven child performers, there’s a compelling tension between old-timey faith and secular abandonment. Rippling piano arpeggios (the score is by Bruce Hornsby) and keen cutaways to the skyline, the Melo-christened courts and tenement buildings infuse love into a simple plot structure.
It can’t last: The movie takes a hard, ruinous turn that will have you doubting the preceding motivations. But isn’t it valuable that Lee refuses to make that gentle church movie we expected? He has to grab the live wire of referendum, go deeper into his Breslinesque outrage. That’s the Lee I treasure; his lunge into the void should be celebrated.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf