Anyone worried that the years have worn down Spike Lee's edge, rest assured. The filmmaker is just as prickly as ever — and intent on getting under your skin. His new drama, "Red Hook Summer," takes aim at poverty, pollution, politicians, pedophiles, pimps and pushers with a religious fervor. Even Barack Obama does not escape his ire.
Always a personal filmmaker, Lee has turned the movie into his personal bully pulpit in a far more literal way than he has in the past. As you listen to Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) rant about what ails society today, you can't help but hear Lee's voice in the proselytizing preacher at the center of "Red Hook." But there are saints among the sinners, too, and before the end, nearly everyone in the film, including the pushers, will get into the finger-pointing act.
"Red Hook Summer" is also the product of a conflicted soul. You can see it in the passion play unfolding inside the church where much of the film is set. The Bishop's flock is dwindling, he's desperate for a financial good Samaritan to come along, and then his grandson Flik (Jules Brown) comes for the summer and the preacher has a new soul to save.
In time, there will be even greater crosses for the Bishop to bear as vengeance and forgiveness fight it out within the crumbling walls of Lil' Peace of Heaven. (The church name would seem ironic if it weren't the actual name of a local congregation.) The conflict contributes to the mess of a film that Lee has made, but it also brings "Red Hook Summer" a measure of saving grace. With its script co-written with James McBride, some of the diatribes about doing the right thing soar, others thunder with righteous indignation, and some simply fizzle.
In truth, the film fizzles as much as it fumes. There is a kind of lassitude that sets in, even as it builds toward some kind of reckoning. It can be felt in the difficulty the filmmaker has knitting all the grievances together. Much of the debate is framed by the dissonance between the Bishop and his resistant grandson. Their clashes echo themes that can be found in Lee's distinctive body of work. Certainly issues of race, empowerment and class are there. But in a fundamental way, when the final shoe is dropped, the film fails us.
"Red Hook Summer" is billed as part of Lee's Brooklyn chronicles, which began years ago and includes, among others, the seminal 1989 "Do the Right Thing." That sense of place does indeed inform "Red Hook." And the polemics seem cherry-picked from any number of his films — certainly "Malcolm X" is one — while the flavoring of its lighter moments is straight out of "She's Gotta Have It."
As the film opens it's clear that something has caused a major riff between the Bishop and Flik's mother (De'Adre Aziza), but it will be a long time before we know just how dark a thing it is. Their conversation is clipped, careful. Flik is not quite a teenager but he's working on it, wearing a sullen look and a sour attitude. It happens that he's a filmmaker too, his iPad capturing the projects in stark and often depressing terms.
While Flik is dismissive of Red Hook, Lee loves his Brooklyn backyard, and with cinematographer Kerwin DeVonish, he makes time to play. There are nods to his long love affair with the region scattered throughout the film, a little like postcards from the edge. The projects themselves feel spruced up and uncluttered, even the local thugs pushing their drugs look freshly bathed.
Lee has always favored strong female characters and Flik's friend Chazz (a terrific Toni Lysaith) is cut from the same cloth as Nola Darling from "She's Gotta Have It." There is none of the sensuality of that 1986 classic about a brazen beauty in the hood, but all of the funny, smart sass. Chazz's bubbly presence literally lifts the film any time she's on screen.
Another bright spot and a familiar Spike Lee type comes from Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). He's the church's janitor who beds down in the building's basement and is forever reeling from booze and ranting about Apple stock. But his ramblings are worth paying attention to because Lee has slipped a wise man into the Deacon's shuffling shoes.
There are jabs at the cruise ships that pollute the area and the asthma that now plagues the kids, specifically Chazz. And the film takes a few harmless shots at encroaching gentrification by well-heeled whites.
But these are minor asides from the real business at hand — the Bishop and the boy. The world may pull at Flik, but the Bishop is determined to save him — from apathy as much as the devil — in ways that are sometimes laced with humor and at other points saturated with pain.
Despite the film's standout performances, "Red Hook Summer" is weakened by the great divide between its characters. Too many that play pivotal roles are only half-formed and fade against the Bishop's fire.
Indeed, nearly all of the emotional upheaval of "Red Hook Summer" is carried on the fiery shoulders of the exceptional Peters. He is the pillar on which this house is built. But even the right reverend is left perpetually in a sweat and must eventually pay for his sins, for nothing can stand up to the heat of Lee's long hot summer.
Even so, Peters imbues his pastor with such a vital and visceral energy that, like his congregation, you'll want to raise your hands and shout "Amen." And if he doesn't move you, the spirited Lil' Peace of Heaven gospel choir (the real one is used in the film) surely will.
MPAA rating: R for brief violence, language and a disturbing situation
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: At selected theaters