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Spike Lee returns to his chronicles of Brooklyn, but proves he’s at home in any film

Photo: David Lee, License: N/A

David Lee

Spike Lee, with actors Toni Lysaith and Jules Brown on the set of Red Hook Summer


Red Hook Summer

Directed by Spike Lee

Now playing in Owings Mills, Hanover, and Bowi

When it comes to his first return to Brooklyn since 1998’s He Got Game, director Spike Lee puts it simply: “Well, I never left.”

Lee spoke to us over the phone about his latest project, Red Hook Summer, the story of a young, middle-class boy from Atlanta (Jules Brown), sent north to spend his vacation with his estranged grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). Devoted to his faith, the bishop sets his sights on guiding his grandson to a more religious existence, putting him to work volunteering at the church and attending services throughout those long, balmy days.

After collaborating on Miracle at St. Anna (2008), Lee and writer James McBride decided to reunite for this next venture, set in McBride’s home neighborhood of Red Hook. When it came to creating the story, Lee says he and McBride developed it side-by-side, from the first spark of inspiration. “We were sitting around and we said, ‘We gotta write a script together,’” he says. “That’s it.”

From there, they crafted a coming-of-age story set in modern times, wrapped up in a DIY aesthetic that should tug at the heartstrings of budding filmmakers (the protagonist, known by his nickname “Flik,” spends much of his time recording the world around him on his iPad). The movie was shot on digital video, and Lee admits that he would not have been able to make it had he shot it on film, as the rather expensive medium would have sent the budget soaring, but the other benefits of video—such as the luxury of doing take upon take without fear of the cost—were moot. “For me, I don’t need a lot of takes. We rehearsed,” he said. “We shot the film in 18 days, so we can’t be on a scene doing 50 takes.”

With a career in feature-filmmaking spanning 26 years, Lee possesses a body of work that involves many genres, many budgets, and a broad spectrum of actors, from the top tier of Hollywood to unknowns. His 2006 crime film, Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, earned accolades, while his documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (also 2006) won three Emmy awards. The director feels comfortable in any cinematic setting, telling us that when it comes to choosing his ideal mode of storytelling, he “enjoy(s) them all.”

After he couldn’t find a Hollywood studio to back a sequel to Inside Man, though, he decided to make a different film, teaming up with McBride to craft the script for Red Hook Summer and financing the project himself. Needless to say, embarking on the task of making the movie without Hollywood funding created some limitations, but those exact impediments helped spawn a film unlike any to come from an established director before. The result is a raw concoction of opposing elements, a small, independent movie told by one of America’s most important contemporary filmmakers.

The process is aided by veteran actor Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme), who brings the bishop’s sermons to life with fiery, pulpit-slapping passion. In church, his faith electrifies him, but when faced with his own demons, he buckles under the weight of his past. Any moment he’s onscreen, all eyes move in his direction; he commands every inch of the frame, from start to finish. Conversely, newcomers Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith (playing Flik’s love interest, Chazz) get their first shot at acting for the big screen, discovered by Lee while they were in the eighth grade. The pair bicker on that awkward brink between childhood friendship and pubescent romance, floundering between antagonistic and affectionate. The levity of their interactions counteracts the bishop’s fire and brimstone, and Brown and Lysaith move fluidly from tender, preteen conversations to bullying banter.

Much of the development of the characters took place in the two weeks of rehearsals that preceded the shoot, and Lee gave the actors the freedom to explore their characters’ histories and intentions before landing on set. Well into the story, Red Hook Summer makes a rather dramatic shift, forever changing the lives of Flik and his grandfather, so it was important to bear in mind just how their journeys brought them to such a conclusion. As for how to direct such a stark turn, Lee chalks it up to experience: “It’s something you acquire from directing films since 1986. How to tell a story. How you construct a story.”

Lee’s experience and the limitations placed before him forge an intriguing bond. Red Hook Summer, while not among the best of his oeuvre, is still worth the watch. It proves that the director is in his element no matter the circumstances, and in light of new trends in technology, filmmakers have a better shot at telling stories their way, on their terms.

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