Red Hook Summer: A Spike Lee Lecture 

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Red Hook Summer
Directed by Spike Lee

I attributed the flaws in Spike Lee's otherwise brilliant feature debut, She's Gotta Have It, to lacks of both experience and money. But they've turned out to be hallmarks of his wildly uneven, if sometimes great, body of work. Some of them—the wooden acting; the overlong amateurishness of set pieces like that earnest dance segment—are jolting but forgivable lapses in judgment from a director whose work is otherwise distinguished by style and vigor. But his characters' tendencies to harangue each other—and us—have gotten harder to shrug off. When the characters in Red Hook Summer go on about the evils of gentrification or the links between poverty and childhood asthma, I get that antsy feeling I got as a child when some humorless teacher lectured the class about something we already knew.

Lee's latest is rife with that kind of preaching. Most is done in Little Piece of Heaven, a beautiful little church near the Red Hook Houses, but there's plenty of it outside the church too, as one character after another grandstands about the ills plaguing the neighborhood and the working-class (though too often unemployed) African-Americans being driven out of it. Even the songs on the soundtrack preach at us, blasting too loudly to remain in the background as they tell us what to think and feel.

The speeches delivered by the riveting Clarke Peters, who anchors the film as Bishop Enoch Rouse, are viscerally engaging, but even they can carry on too long. And the film spends as much time with Flik (Jules Brown), a sullen 13-year-old who's spending the summer with his grandfather, as it does with Enoch. That's a problem, because Brown is not a strong enough—or maybe well-enough directed—actor to be anything other than a blank-faced audience surrogate. Toni Lysaith, who plays Flik's friend and love interest, is adorable but also unconvincing.

The scenes between the two kids, as they explore the neighborhood and supposedly fall in love, lack the depth and emotional complexity that permeate every one of Peters's scenes. That imbalance—and the camera styles that keep shifting, often for no apparent reason—help make this alternately deeply moving and didactic movie feel, well, wildly uneven.

Opens August 10

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