Skipping over the neighborhood like a spinning stone, Lee’s rocking Red Hook looks great in Technicolor.
Spike Lee’s latest film is better than it looks at first glance. Featuring a sullen teenager (Jules Brown), the average parent will feel they get enough of that at home and write off the cost of the ticket. This is no “Do the Right Thing,” although it might do more for kids than Lee’s blockbuster did for the entire US population. This is a film of choices and, as usual, Lee refuses to make the choices for us. Perhaps the problem is that he present us with so many alternatives answers we forget the question, or if there even was a question.
The cinematography is vintage Spoke Lee. Most of the shots are exterior shots in full sunlight, on the streets of Brooklyn. The Red Hook neighborhood (Brooklyn, on the East River) was never shown in a brighter light. The buildings are old and tattered but a sense of homeliness and, God help us, even security pervades the film. Having given us the bright security of Lorraine Street and the outrageously fervent gospel music, Lee snatches the security away at the last minute, showing teen Flik Royale (newcomer Jules Brown) that not all is as it appears.
The funny thing is that Flik knows that already. He knows the difference between reality and the images on his iPad better than the congregation know the difference between a strong sermon and a strong man. His hyper-religious grandfather Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse knows how to preach a great sermon, all hellfire and brimstone. What he teaches Jules, and those in the audience who are willing to listen, is the difference between a strong man and a weak man.
The fact is, the Bishop is both, just as Jules’ iPad captures the image but not the reality of street life in America’s urban ghettos. As it turns out, the film, overall, does not go out of its way to capture too many of the gangster attributes of the inner city, what with the local Bloods contingent turning out to be more vigilante than violator. By the end of the film the Bloods have been transformed into vengeful angels, the Bishop has been crucified with a tambourine and all of those in the audience from within a ten-mile radius of Red Hook are rolling in the aisles, if they are not asleep.
A little off-kilter at times, this is not necessarily a film for adult audiences. It is better aimed at a youthful audience who will appreciate the incessant rap rhythm of almost every line in the film. The entire screenplay is a rap song, with hardly a single line delivered without the inflections and timing of the street. At some point this crosses the line between “Bed Stuy Do Or Die” and Justin Bieber but few in the audience care, as long as they are focused on the art of the film and not the documentary.
This is, after all, a work of artistic entertainment and not a news flash about the latest drug bust in the “hood.”
There are good messages in this film about kids knowing the right way to go, as long as they are not abused too much by their elders, technology viewed as both a ruse and a key out of the ghetto and traditional religion that needs to change to suit the needs of a new generation.
These weighty messages are coupled with rich photography of one of the few remaining non-gentrified neighborhoods in New York and a swash-buckling sound track that unabashedly mixes rocking gospel with good new-fashioned commercial pop. Religious exploitation never got better and, as long as the listener is not a completely addicted bible-thumper, this will be one of the best soundtracks he or she has heard this year.
Toni Lysaith, as Jules’ love interest Chazz Morningstar, nearly steals the show with pure, unadulterated, unfocused and unfiltered charm. She is depicted as the rose that grows in Spanish Harlem, a virtual Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the crucified Jesus, as opposed to the average inner city black ghetto twelve year old who could take the eye out of an assailant with a broken bottle of Night Train faster than you could say “Da Good Bishop.”
Rounding out the church chorus, who sing far too well to be part of any church chorus, but we love it, anyway, is organist Jonathan Batiste. Spawn of a celebrated lineage of New Orleans musicians; he sticks out like a sore thumb. A little too much “Blues Brothers” Aretha Franklin for some viewers, no doubt. In spite of the ragged edges of an otherwise serious screenplay, a great film to watch for those who can go along for the ride and not take the whole affair to seriously.
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Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee and James McBride
Starring: Jules Brown, Clarke Peters and Toni Lysaith
Release Date: August 10, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 121 minutes