Red Hook Summer: Spike Lee Returns to His Brooklyn Roots

A magical performance by Clarke Peters elevates this drama of a middle-class boy visiting his grandfather in one of New York's cratered neighborhoods

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Variance Films

He may not be transferring his basketball loyalty from the New York Knicks to the newly installed Brooklyn Nets, but Spike Lee is the movie bard of the borough he grew up in. Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, was shot in his old neighborhood of Fort Greene; his signature film, the 1989 Do the Right Thing, profiled racially mixed Bensonhurst on a sweltering summer day. Crooklyn took place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clockers in Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, part of He Got Game on Coney Island. As much as Alexander Payne owns Omaha, and John Waters and Barry Levinson have joint custody of Baltimore, Kings County is Spike City.

(WATCH: Spike Lee Talks Red Hook Summer and the 4 Million Stories He Has Left To Tell)

Red Hook Summer, Lee’s first fiction film since the 2008 Miracle of St. Anna, marks the 55-year-old director’s return not just to Brooklyn but to basics. Apparently made on a Nike shoestring, focusing on a few blocks in the Red Hook projects and featuring a mix of professional and first-time actors, the movie has the urgent, artless air of a student project with so much on its mind it is constantly in danger of exploding or collapsing. Early on, Red Hook plants the threats of turf warfare, toughs bullying 12-year-olds and black kids sparking a racial confrontation with middle-class whites a few blocks away. But those are just promises and padding for the real tale of an elderly preacher and his Buppie grandson.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing by subscribing to TIME)

A Brooklyn neighborhood for four centuries, Red Hook spawned all strata of notables: H.P. Lovecraft and Norman Mailer, Al Capone and Crazy Joe Gallo and, from the projects where this movie is set, Busta Rhymes and Carmelo Anthony, whose name is invoked as a household saint by the kids on Lorraine Street. Today, virtually all of Brooklyn is the new Manhattan, as young professionals clog the old apartment houses, and nearly every mom-and-pop store is replaced by a Starbucks. Even in scarred, spartan Red Hook, one of the few parts of western Brooklyn not easily accessible by subway, “Gentrification has reared its ugly head,” as the neighborhood’s most prominent clergyman notes. Bad as it is to live there, it would be worse to be pushed out by the next wave of investment bankers.

The evangelical speaker is Bishop Enoch Rouse (the great Clarke Peters), pastor of the Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook. Bishop Enoch, his long locks tucked into a spinster’s hairnet, has the gift of turning the Gospel into thrilling oratory; his sermons are poems on fire. “It should not be,” he thunders, “that the only God is football and rap!” He thumps his copy of the Bible and shouts, “Meet my gangsta! Meet my social network!” Backed by the inspired noodling of the church organist (Jonathan Batiste), he declares, “We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But we do know Who holds tomorrow.” If only for spellbinding entertainment value, Da Good Bishop should be hosting a packed house in his storefront cathedral.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled)

One member of the congregation doesn’t get the message. Silas Royale (Jules Brown), known as Flik, has been sent by his mom, Enoch’s daughter, to spend the summer in Red Hook. A private-school kid whose black roots have been so bleached he can’t tap his foot when the church choir ascends to rhythmic ecstasy, Flik hates Brooklyn, resists Enoch’s proselytizing and fears that ruffians will steal his iPad — his only link to home and humanity. He does fall into a friendship with a girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), whom he peculiarly courts by dangling a big dead rat in her face. Chazz returns his ardor by writing their names in the soft cement of a white woman’s sidewalk. Ah, young love.

One of the faithful quotes the line, “Good better best, never let it rest, Till your good is better and your better is best.” Lee’s movies are mad mixtures of good, better and bad. He loves to twist a picture out of shape, daring the audience to keep up with the abrupt shift of moods, the wagging finger of the director. In this mission he found an apt abettor: screenwriter James McBride, who grew up in Red Hook (the setting for his best-selling memoir The Color of Water) and who also co-scripted Miracle of St. Anna. The Red Hook Summer script lurches from denunciation of the nearby cruise-ship terminal, whose noxious emissions Enoch blames for “choking our children with asthma,” to lovely vignettes of the preacher’s rival, a Jehovah’s Witness lady, cadging for converts in the park. The scattershot approach fits Lee’s moviemaking style: film whatever’s interesting, and squeeze into into the movie.

(READ: TIME’s review of Spike Lee’s Miracle of St. Anna)

Two problems here: the dramaturgy in the first two-thirds of Red Hook Summer is almost criminally naive; and, when the meat of the story is finally served, it has nothing to do with what went before. In his church, Enoch has a volcanic encounter with one of his long-ago parishioners (Colman Domingo, a Tony nominee this year for The Scottsboro Boys). We won’t reveal the subject of the grievance, but we will say that it both calls into question the decision of Flik’s mother to send him to Red Hook and is not set up by any behavior shown in the film. It’s a terrific scene that seems lifted from a different, tauter film. That film might be Chinatown, since at the end of Lee’s movie a white cop says to a black cop, “The Hook — it’s Red Hook, baby,” which echoes the last line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” from the 1974 drama with a similar subterranean theme. But for much of Red Hook Summer, even the most indulgent viewer will want to forget it.

The other thing about scattershot directing: it’s bound to hit something good. Like people who attend church just to listen to the music, moviegoers can treat themselves here to magnificent effusions of gospel-singing artistry. The Lil’ Piece of Heaven Choir elevates such favorites as “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” “I Want to Be Ready (To Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John)” and “Get on Board, Little Children” into glorious glossolalia.

(READ: TIME’s review of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam)

Peters is no less transporting. The author of the ’90s West End and Broadway hit Five Guys Named Moe, he radiates a charismatic presence and a voice that’s as potent and plangent an instrument as Ornette Coleman’s sax. Peters brings a magical energy to the movie’s most laggard moments, infusing a so-what drama with a must-see performance. In this bad-better-best movie, the Flik story is the bad, the choir singing much better and Peters the soul-stirring best.