Red Hook Summer asks the big question
The movie is an intergenerational conversation being held in practically every black family across the nation, including that of Lee himself, celebrating a quarter century of independent filmmaking on his own terms, but clearly as bewildered as any other parent about the next generation.
Things got worse before they got better for the black residents of what was to become New York City, according to the program guide for the New York State Freedom Trail published by the Schomburg Center. By 1702, no more than three blacks could gather at once. By 1711, the official slave market was established at Wall Street and the East River. But in 1712, there was an uprising, followed by a plot in 1741. By 1776, blacks fought for the American side in the Battles of Brooklyn and Harlem Heights to win their freedom. In 1827, slavery ended in New York State.
Given that spirit of resistance, or even that of the civil rights generation of the 1960s, Lee and other middle-aged parents are wondering how to transmit that spirit to youth who have grown up with an African-American President, yet seem to lack purpose and direction.
The tableau for the conversation is the interplay between an instrument of deliverance -- the black church, a cornerstone of the Underground Railroad, and today's young people.
Wired into a global community of immediate gratification, the faith of their fathers seems at best quaint. For many of the youth, there is no visible father.
Silas (Flik) Royale, a digital alter ego of Lee, lost his father in Afghanistan. His mother brings him from Atlanta's suburbs and private school to the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn where she grew up to spend the summer with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse of a small Baptist church in the waterfront community. In following Lee's journey back from Morehouse to Brooklyn, the character is Lee's way of wondering why more independent filmmakers have not followed in his footsteps.
The movie debuted as one of the high priests of hip hop, Chris Lighty, succumbed from self-inflicted wounds. The crisis of confidence among black youth extends beyond a loss of connection to the black church, but even to their new-found passion of celebrity.
It also touches on the sexual harrassment furor involving prominent clerics, the disaffection following the election of the first black president, Wall Street investment shenanigans and the environmental impact of global trade on coastal black communities, particularly children.
For those accustomed to black film as thigh-slappin' mirth or special-effects laden action vehicles, Red Hook Summer is shockingly mundane.
Flik assumes the role of community chronicler played by Lee himself with his first film shot in Brooklyn, She's Gotta Have It. To get the full drift of Lee's approach, one can find embedded clues in everything from scenes to casting. Tracy Camilla Johns, star of She's Gotta Have It, plays a disabled parishioner in Red Hook Summer and Lee reprises his role as Mookie, the pizza deliveryman from Do The Right Thing.
Seeing how a black community functions on a daily basis is a revelation for the sheltered Silas Royale. His Apple IPad2 is symbolic of a dynamic world moving past communities like Red Hook like they don't exist.
Yet, small black churches proliferate in those communities as a continuing beacon of hope, with the dedication of the likes of Bishop Rouse, Sista Shirley Morningstar and Deacon Z fighting off fuel oil bills and leaking roofs to keep the doors open.
Lee resists the temptation to caricature the church, as happens so often in motion pictures, but uses the sermons of Bishop Rouse as a monologue of the subjects on the filmmaker's mind.
Chazz Morningstar, Sista Shirley's daughter, has none of Flik's resistance to faith, yet they bond and enjoy a summer of equally mundane adventures, like writing initials in wet cement.
Gang leader Box, an updated version of Radio Rahim, represents the question of the day as a former church member now focused on getting a rap video and a hip hop career. His seizure of Flik's IPad2 breaks the film's planned monotony and leads to a confrontation with the Bishop.
Flik's resistance to the Bishop's message begins to ease after the Bishop sticks his neck out to retrieve the tablet computer. But at the moment of acceptance, Lee throws a big surprise ending that brings all the disparate threads together, reusing in a modified way the conclusion from Do The Right Thing to turn out the church at what seems to be its moment of deliverance.
A partial answer to the breach between the black church and black youth is presented as the disaffection from flawed messengers who abuse the faith they are shepherding. Bishop Rouse has to confront his past in a violent and humbling way at the hands of Box.
Lee's conclusion appears to be that all African-Americans have to share witness to the past rather than taking elaborate manuevers to bury it. His message to youth is to use technology to preserve that journey rather than to run away from it.
His own father, Bill Lee, writes the rousing musical conclusion to the film, another embedded clue to his intent, performed by the Morehouse College Glee Club.