It might seem unfair to compare an artist's latest work to his masterpiece from over 20 years ago, but Spike Lee not only appears to welcome the comparison, but invites it. From the steamy, sweaty, summer-in-Brooklyn setting to its loose structure to its incendiary climax, Lee's new Red Hook Summer is immediately identifiable as the direct descendant of 1989's Do the Right Thing. If it wasn't clear thematically, Lee underlines, highlights and writes the point in flashing text on a marquee by actually invoking the words "do the right thing" on more than one occasion and returning to the screen as Mookie, his character from that film.
Mookie's return is momentary and minor; he's still delivering pizzas for Sal's and is just a colorful figure among many in the neighborhood. The focus is on Flik (Jules Brown), a middle-class teen from Atlanta whose mother drops him off in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to spend the summer with his Baptist preacher grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters). Flik and Enoch have never met, and Flik's mother can't get away fast enough after dropping him off — she and Enoch have obviously been estranged for years.
Flik is a vegan, private-schooled atheist, privileged and sheltered, which pretty much leaves him not just in opposition to Enoch — who starts every day with an eggs and scrapple breakfast before heading off to his tiny, slowly dying church — but also out of place on the rough streets of Red Hook. Dice-playing, drug-dealing gang members don't tend to look kindly on a kid who is constantly filming his surroundings on an iPad.
Billed as a coming-of-age story, what's odd about Red Hook Summer is that Flik fades into the background when the film reaches its emotional climax. It's Enoch who moves to the center, and that's to the film's benefit. Peters is powerful as Enoch, a preacher who delivers fiery sermons with social and political undertones, railing against youth fashion, gentrification, rap music, and technology from the pulpit and who sees his grandson as the manifestation of many of those evils. When Enoch becomes the focus, the film is far more resonant than when Lee tries to let Brown — an inexperienced performer, and it shows — try to carry the film.
In many ways, this is the return to risk-taking narrative filmmaking that Lee fans have been demanding. Red Hook Summer finds the director in an experimental mood, engaging in feats of stylistic daring that might seem like folly on paper, but actually work in practice. He blends digital filmmaking with faded home movie transitions, breaks the fourth wall, and employs some dazzling and graceful camera movement.
A scene in which Flik challenges his grandfather on the very existence of God is punctuated by quick cuts to Flik in different locations throughout Brooklyn, staring into the camera and asking insistently each time, "Is he here?" It's a trick that shows how deeply Lee understands the unique capabilities of cinema, as it ostensibly distances the viewer by reminding us that this is a movie, yet also heightens the emotional resonance of the scene in ways that words alone can't.
Those moments, however, don't mitigate the fact that from a storytelling perspective, Red Hook Summer is an absolute mess. The reason Flik's mother decides to pawn him off on Enoch aren't really established, and the more that comes out about their past, the stranger it seems that she'd do so. Ultimately, Flik is put in the position of protagonist despite being almost entirely unnecessary to the story Lee ends up telling. Where Do the Right Thing was a powerhouse, a movie that left you breathless because of the way Lee was able to wrap so much subtext and commentary within the story, his attempts to do the same here are clumsy and unfocused.