By Guest Contributor Naomi Extra
What shocked me most while watching Red Hook Summer was its striking similarity to the films of Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes whose work Lee has openly criticized. In fact, many reviewers have put the film right in line with Perry’s films by describing it as a church movie. Red Hook has been criticized as preachy, messy in narrative structure and development, and sensationalist. All are valid critiques. They also seem ironic in light of the ongoing beef between Perry and Lee, which was ignited when Lee referred to the films of Perry and the like as “coonery and buffoonery.” And of course, the media loves this sort of melodrama.
Spike Lee’s newest film takes place in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Flik (Jules Brown), a teenage boy from Atlanta, goes to stay with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) for the summer. Flik is a teenage Afro-Punk type: vegan, middle-class, afro-hawk, suburban speak. In contrast, Bishop Enoch is a Bible-thumping preacher and active member of his community. Amidst heavier themes of class, politics, religion, and generational difference, a budding romance between Flik and Chazz (Toni Lysaith) is also threaded through the film.
The question is, could Red Hook be Spike talking more smack, mocking the immensely popular church films of Tyler Perry and the like? I wouldn’t put it past him. When recently asked about the ongoing feud, Lee responded with a request: “No more Tyler Perry questions please” and later “peace and love, leave it at that.” And although he doesn’t speak of Perry directly, in a radio interview, Lee describes the film’s inception as a conversation between him and writer James Mc Bride. The two were discussing what they “felt was a sorry state of African American cinema.” With this film, Lee seems to have found a way to squash the beef and have the last word.
Mild SPOILER ALERT under the cut.
Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of healing and redemption through religious faith. Throughout the film Enoch insists that his grandson “needs Jesus.” In one of many lengthy church scenes, Enoch tries to get Flik to give his life to Jesus by stating, “There’s somebody in this holy sanctuary who needs Jesus.” After repeating the phrase in various forms, we see one of Enoch’s eye’s open and look directly at Flik. By this point it is clear just who that someone is. This religious tug of war between Enoch and his grandson continues throughout.
Then about a third of the way through, when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then, suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.
Layered upon Lee’s seemingly satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul culture which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, generational, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America, an aesthetic he tackles explicitly in films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.
In Red Hook, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry and Lee are concerned with similar topics (religion, class, generational rifts), Lee’s main point of contention seems to be with Perry’s reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.
The film’s insistence on complicating the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, Flik is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology; his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind.
What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that, for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.
Another piece of the puzzle lies in how the film is written. In online reviews, there has been little mention of the voice and influence of McBride, who co-wrote and produced the film and is the author of the best-selling memoir The Color of Water. In many ways, Red Hook appears to be loosely based upon the life experiences of McBride, who grew up in the titular projects, the son of a black reverend and a white Jewish woman who, as he describes in the book, refused to acknowledge her whiteness; when he asked her if she was white, he wrote, she answered, “I’m light-skinned.” The confusion caused by her evasiveness ultimately leads him along a search to define his racial identity and family history.
The portrait we get of McBride in his memoir most certainly reflects the multiple intersections of identity that characterize the post-soul individual. Both in the film and McBride’s life, both the desire to be free from identity categories as well as the desire to conceal identity are present.
Ultimately, Red Hook and Lee achieve more than just trash talking. We’re left with food for thought on the ways tradition and faith are employed within the African American community. The film begs the question of where black folks turn when traditional spaces for achieving personal and spiritual freedom fail or cease to exist. Lee’s cinematic sermon in the film extends a message that has been appearing in post-soul artistic production for decades: that we must locate freedom within ourselves. Red Hook may very well offer more freedom to its creators than to its viewers. Instead of taking to vicious attacks of Tyler Perry or the Hollywood establishment, Lee puts post-soul freedom into practice. He lets go of trying to control the industry and instead controls himself.
In her own post-soul work, The Healing, author Gayle Jones may summarize the message Lee wanted to send with this movie: “Some people think that freedom is to manage everybody but theyself,” she writes. “Learn to manage yourself. That is the key to freedom.” An excellent bit of wisdom, not only for those watching films but also those making them.
Naomi Extra is a Cave Canem poet and contributing editor for Kweli Journal. She is also a full time New York City public school teacher. Her writings can be found in The Feminist Wire and on the blog Indigo + Cypress.