When I was around 12 or 13 years old, I wrote a lot of short stories. Most of the stories I wrote around this time were light-hearted science fiction. However, as an introverted teenager living in a foreign country, I frequently channeled some of my more destructive, confused impulses into fiction. No doubt if I had ever been involved in a school shooting or some other terrible crime, these would have been presented as evidence of abnormal behavior. Looking back, however, I’m pretty sure they were just outward expressions of the kind of identity crises and frustration all teenagers experience at some point, a desire to become an adult by writing about adult things.
There was one story, however, that was different from the others, for it was chilling in a way that the others were not. Part Silence of the Lambs, part theological inquiry, it followed a day in the life of a devoutly religious serial killer who murdered people simply so he could pray for forgiveness and experience the ecstasy of knowing his soul was secure. He was an extreme example of the apostates chastised in the New Testament books of Matthew, John and James; a sinner who believed grace was a free pass to commit more evil. This is the first time I can recall clearly expressing recognition that the cut-and-dry Christian worldview I was presented with as a child could be misunderstood, questioned, or even perverted into something evil. I was starting to realize that religious people can be the most immoral among us. A God that heals can also inspire discrimination, hatred and even murder. The ideas by which we interpret our relationship to our fellow man and the universe itself can very well be used as justifications to destroy it.
I bring this up because movies are hardly ever even that complex in their treatment of faith. In the movies, priests and pastors are usually presented as either wise shepherds who help the protagonist through a difficult time—think of William H. Macy in The Sessions, for example—or fallen men hiding their true selves behind a collar. Devoutly religious characters are either bigots or mystical seers who always know the right thing to say. It’s rare for Hollywood to acknowledge that religion and faith are messy things followed by messy people and that both can be forces for good and for evil, sometimes at the same time. As with most of life’s most important issues, it’s easy to want to stick God in a box and label it either “Right” or “Wrong” with no room for anything in between.
All of which might explained why Spike Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, manages to seem fresh and provocative even as it’s undermined by some of the most uneven filmmaking I’ve seen all year. Its goals are so ambitious and worth pursuing that its flawed execution is that much more disappointing. It is a work that refuses to take a stand as pro- or anti-religion, emerging simply as pro-human, with all the complications that might involve. It embraces the mystery that comes in the pursuit of divine truth rather than trying to mold it to a particular stance. It’s also not a very good movie.
The sixth in a series of films loosely dubbed Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn,” Red Hook Summer follows thirteen-year-old Flik Royale over the course of one season spent under the care of his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse. Flik is an introvert who resents having to leave home, and he spends most of his free time glued to his iPad 2 and filming his surroundings (the first sign that the movie is semi-autobiographical). He takes pictures of animal carcasses, both because he is spiritually lifeless and out of a desire to find beauty in the recent death of his father. As you’d expect, his time with his grandfather starts to shape him into a better person. Unlike most coming-of-age stories, however, this one is directly focused on issues of religion and Flik’s gradual shift from immature atheist to spiritually-minded young man.
Lee’s low-budget aesthetic combined with an irritating lack of subtlety lends the film a “church movie” vibe that renders the first 80 minutes nearly unwatchable. The two main teenage actors are both newcomers, and it shows. Scenes meander. There isn’t much of a plot. In one of the most irritating decisions made by a filmmaker all year, most of the movie is set to a piano score that intrudes in nearly every key scene. Lee’s gritty low-budget aesthetic and freestyle approach to story progression may be meant to feel like jazz, but it lacks the necessary assuredness. The best jazz musicians are able to make improvisation feel planned—for most of its run time, Red Hook Summer isn’t controlled chaos, it’s just chaos.
There are a few bright spots. A major reversal occurs two-thirds of the way through the film, and this scene (and a few that follow) is so well-directed and edited that it feels like something out of a different movie. And Clarke Peters’ performance as Bishop Enoch, buoyed by the mediocrity of those around him, deserves the kind of serious award consideration it’s unfortunately unlikely to receive. It’s all in the voice. With every word, he somehow manages to balance the vigor found in traditional African-American styles of preaching with the somber weight of past transgressions. When he asks his congregation if anyone needs to repent, he seems to be addressing both himself and us.
And that’s the really beautiful thing about Red Hook Summer: for all its faults, it recognizes that our religious institutions are just extensions of ourselves, and our authority figures are as human as we are. Lee doesn’t ignore the paradoxes of faith, he revels in them, and seems determined to ask questions that have difficult or impossible answers. How can we be expected to follow God when His most devout followers are often the most treacherous and sinful individuals out there? How can it be that the same faith that propelled the civil rights movement has also been used as Marx’s oppressive opiate of the masses, a tool to keep minorities and the poor in their place? Why are the art forms that allow for spiritual expression and discovery also obstacles to spiritual growth? How is it that the same churches that were once uniting forces in communities are now less influential than ever? Why do good people do bad things? Can the concept of a higher power inspire true change in people, or are the resulting good deeds just a placebo effect?
The film’s most profound scene finds Bishop Enoch debating the nature of fate with a single mother from the community. He argues that with enough faith in God, every situation will turn out okay. She responds that she could never leave her child’s education and future up to God—there are some situations for which we’re largely on our own. It’s the navigation of that struggle between human agency and the divine that often proves so difficult. When religion gets it right, it fulfills and heals in ways that other institutions never will. When it fails, the results are often devastating.
Red Hook Summer has been mistakenly referred to as a sequel to Lee’s pivotal 1989 film Do The Right Thing, partly because that film’s protagonist Mookie (played by Lee himself) makes a cameo appearance. The only major similarity is that both actively invite the audience to reach their own conclusions. The climactic riot scene in Do The Right Thing presents a world in which “good people” and “bad people” become subjective labels imposed by each individual viewer. In these movies, there are only people. Red Hook Summer also refuses to take the easy way out—it is likely that each individual’s own experiences with religion will dramatically impact how they interpret the film.
The complex, paradoxical nature of faith is a topic well worth exploring, and one so rarely examined in cinema that even a movie as disastrous as Red Hook Summer feels remarkably admirable. It’s a shame its craft isn’t cleaner than its subject matter, for then it might actually be transcendent.
Andrew Johnson is a freelance journalist and founder of Film Geek Radio.