August 24th, 2012
02:15 PM ET
At first glance, Spike Lee's latest opus on Brooklyn might appear to be a straightforward story of an adolescent boy, in this case named Flik Royale, and the culture clash he experiences when he's sent to live with his grandfather over the summer.
It's a familiar plot, and one some of us can likely relate to, but this is a Spike Lee film - it's not going to be that easy.
The famed filmmaker has challenged moviegoers in the past with prior installments in his Chronicles of Brooklyn series - movies such as "She's Gotta Have It" (1986); "Do The Right Thing" (1989); and "He Got Game" (1998), to name a few. And now, with August's "Red Hook Summer," Lee's back at it once again with a new Brooklyn story.
He's turned his camera toward the comings and goings in Red Hook, a neighborhood that holds a passionate preacher named Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters). When Rouse's grandson, the middle-class Flik (portrayed by newcomer Jules Brown), flies up from Atlanta to stay with the Bishop at his home in the Red Hook housing projects, grandfather and grandson are soon forced to confront a disturbing family secret.
That's the cliff notes version, as "Red Hook Summer" in actuality covers a lot of ground: It raises questions about class and gentrification; God and faith; and redemption, among other things. There's even a tween love story nestled into the storyline, depicting the budding friendship between Flik and the outspoken Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith) as they traverse the streets of their neighborhood and attend Bishop Rouse's struggling church, with Flik capturing as much of his adventures as possible on an ever-present iPad 2.
The seed that sprouted this layered tale, Lee told CNN, all began with a conversation with his co-writer and co-producer, author James McBride, about their kids.
"We just sat around and looked at the world we live in," Lee said of the film's genesis. "The initial idea is that James and I both have teenage kids, and we wondered, how come we don’t see teenagers like our kids in movies, with the exception of Will Smith’s kids. Our children are dating, and they’re not pregnant, and they’re not shooting nobody and they’re not in gangs and they’re good students. One of my favorite films dealing with kids is “Stand By Me,” the Rob Reiner film written by Stephen King. And I said, ‘Man, we’ve never had that type of film with black kids.’ So that was the initial idea, and we put layer upon layer after that."
Lee said he knew from the start that he'd have to bypass the traditional studio system to tell this story, which is also being self-distributed. After writing the script with McBride, Lee shot "Red Hook Summer" over the course of 18 days, pulling some of his key cast members from his former stomping grounds.
"I don’t like kids who come out of acting school, and I’m talking about professional schools," Lee said. "There’s a teacher at my old junior high school ... a drama teacher, and I knew that once James and I wrote the script, I could sit in the back of his drama class and find Chazz, and find Flik, and find [the young] Blessing [Rowe, portrayed by Sincere Peters]. And that’s what I did."
While the story is centered on Flik, it's impossible not to be drawn to the complex portrayal of his grandfather, Bishop Rouse, the leader of a small but dedicated flock who's also unrelenting in his mission to get his grandson to accept Christianity.
Fans of "The Wire" will recognize Peters, whom Lee said kills it in his portrayal of Da Good Bishop.
"It was critical of the utmost that we cast somebody who could make an unsympathetic character [like Rouse] sympathetic," Lee said. "I think one of the [reasons] why this film works is that people come out of the theater, in my opinion - and some people told me this, more than some - and they’re conflicted about how they feel about Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse. Because their brain says they should hate him, and despise him ... but their heart says something else. It takes a great actor to do that, and Clarke Peters is a great actor."
Lee added that he's been "a big fan" of Peters' since his role in David Simon's "The Corner," but he didn't have a role for the actor, who currently stars in Simon's "Treme" on HBO, until now.
"This one, 'Red Hook Summer,' is Clarke Peters' film," Lee said. "I’m a firm believer in things happening when they’re supposed to happen. This is the right time, the right space."
Of course, as the title suggests, this is also Red Hook's film.
"Red Hook," Lee said, "is a very interesting neighborhood. James grew up in Red Hook. And that church you see in the film, his parents founded that church. And it’s going through gentrification, too." The film finds ways to highlight the evolution, which Lee said can have its upsides - "more police presence, your garbage will be picked up on time, the schools will get miraculously better" - and its obvious downsides, namely the displacement of area residents.
"The discussion that really needs to be held, in my opinion, is where do people go, the people who used to live in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene," Lee said. "Where do people go when they get forced out?"
Upon viewing it, that'll likely be one of many conversations moviegoers will have - which, in the end, is all Lee was hoping for.
"We just want people to be engaged, to come out of movies talking about it. And that doesn’t mean they necessarily have to agree with everything, either," he noted. "They’re coming out saying they went home thinking about it, they woke up thinking about it. It’s really touched people. I think people [are] respond[ing] to something they haven’t seen before, a type of film they haven’t seen in a long time, that deals with us as a people."
One community he hasn't heard from, as of yet anyway, is the black church, which has a special spotlight in "Red Hook Summer."
"Well, I want the record to state that James McBride, who grew up in the church, and myself, who occasionally would go when I was sent down south to Atlanta in the summer, we respect the black church," Lee said. "We love the black church, we know historically the importance of the black church."
That being said, he continued with a chuckle, "no institution is above critique. Even the mighty black church. I think that we were very fair how we approached this and how we dealt with the black church in 'Red Hook Summer.'"
You can decide that for yourself if you live in one of the cities/states now playing "Red Hook Summer" in select theaters, including New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C. For more information, visit Variance Films.
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