No Turning Back
Spike Lee has love for all things Brooklyn, except the Nets.
by Sherman Johnson
Now that the Olympics are done and summer is nearing its conclusion, the release of Spike Lee’s latest film—his first feature in two years—feels providential. And although Red Hook Summer isn’t as much about basketball as it may sound, the film was inspired by the game as much as any of the veteran filmmaker’s other treatises chronicling the Republic of Brooklyn in the past two decades.
Lee had the idea of setting the film in the largest public housing project in Brooklyn after filming a commercial for Boost Mobile with Carmelo Anthony. Around the same time, James McBride, the film’s co-writer and producer, came to him with a script set in the same hood where he was also born and raised.
Red Hook Summer tells the story of a young shorty from Atlanta named Flik Royale who comes to spend the summer with his grandfather in the Point. As awful as that sounds, it’s even worse than you can imagine since Flik’s grandfather, Bishop Enoch, is the deacon of the local church and attempts to indoctrinate the kid with hard doses of dogma on the daily. Flik, somewhat disaffected by the death of his father in Afghanistan, isn’t having it and quite naturally a generational and cultural clash ensues.
The kid doesn’t even play basketball, or any of the other games that normal kids from the hood play for that matter, and seems perfectly content experiencing life in the big city primarily through the lens of his iPad that sticks out in the mis-en-scene like a flashy new whip with 22-inch chrome rims. The fact that he’s also a vegetarian should tell you what the score is—grandson’s such a borderline douche, who initially you won’t feel so bad when he begins to unravel from all the crazy ish he’s forced to endure on the daily.
Not only is he pressed into indentured servitude at the church but he also has to go to Sunday service. When the Bishop starts feeding him meat for breakfast he starts stealing bags of chips and other junk food from the church pantry on the low-low until he’s caught by another kid, a girl named Chazz Morningstar who uses it to blackmail him into being nice to her. But that’s not the worst of it; after Flik disregards his grandfather’s warning about taking his iPad out in the PJs, he gets the device snatched by a group of local toughs hanging out politicking at the basketball court and is reduced to begging for its return.
Red Hook Summer, like a lot of films in the Lee oeuvre, contains an undercurrent of darkness beneath the vibrant and somewhat idyllic South Brooklyn landscape laying just off Upper New York Bay. Invidious backbiting at the Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church threatens to destabilize the sanctity of Bishop Enoch’s flock, even as he rails against the nefarious byproducts of rampant industrialization and gentrification that excludes them from the wider community. But nowhere is the dark heart of man its most incomprehensibly dreadful than in the pulpit of religiosity.
The relationship between the church and the black community is explored in even greater depth than Jungle Fever where the sins of the father are disastrously visited upon the son. In Red Hook Summer, it’s a parricidal revelation of a different sort coupled with the specter of the black-on-black violence so prevalent in a Babylon like Brooklyn that nearly upends Flik’s summer until his friendship with Chazz begins to bloom as she introduces him to the brighter side of Brooklyn. It’s through her love that he begins to realize that the world is a lot bigger, and perhaps a lot better, than the touchscreen of his iPad.
Talk about art imitating reality, in Red Hook Summer Spike Lee’s love for all things Brooklyn extends to nearly everything except the Nets. The fact that there’s a new franchise in his town hasn’t done anything to dull his devotion to the home squad.
“For the millionth and one time, it’s the Knicks,” he deadpans when asked about attending some games at Barclay’s Center. “I’ll go, it’s right down the block, but I’m not gonna change my allegiance. I got love for the New York Knicks because I’m a longtime fan. A. Long. Time.”
If you don’t believe him then check the film footage, especially the scene around the Boise State-looking basketball court that’s decked out in royal blue and orange with Melo’s logo stamped in black on the backboards. The assemblage of thugs posted court side fondly but cynically reminiscing about the life and times of Carmelo Anthony in Red Hook bleed blue and orange but their faith isn’t as unshakeable as Spike Lee’s. He’s truly a believer even if he’s still unconvinced of their Playoff chances in the upcoming season.
“Here’s the reality,” Lee begins when asked for his prognosis for next season, “[Jeremy] Lin’s now wearing a Houston Rockets uniform, we got Raymond Felton, and Melo played great in the Olympics. Hopefully he’ll carry that over. We just gotta do work and win more than one game in the Playoffs, that’s for sure! We’ll see what happens. It’s gonna be very interesting season and I think that everybody’s committed to making sure Miami don’t do it back-to-back. They signed Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and they still have Mike Miller who could barely make it up the court, but when he did, he was hitting those shots. The Knicks are gonna be good but that still don’t make it a guarantee.”