indigo + cypress

Red Hook Summer: On Post-Soul Culture & Spike Lee Talkin’ Smack

By Naomi Extra

(Cross-posted in Racialicious on 08.28.12 with edits from the author)

Spike Lee’s newest film, Red Hook Summer, 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.

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 Summer has been said to be 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.

The question is, could Red Hook Summer 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.” With Red Hook Summer, Lee seems to have found a way to squash the beef and have the last word.

Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of clean-cut messages of healing and redemption through religious faith. Then suddenly, about a third of the way through the film 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 Summer 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 satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul aesthetic 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, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America. In Red Hook Summer, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry places similar concerns on the agenda, Lee’s beef seems to be with his reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.

Red Hook Summer’s insistence on 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, the star of Red Hook Summer, 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.

For better or worse, both directors have managed to make a name for themselves in an industry largely invested in what sells. With so few black filmmakers out there, combined with the politics of respectability within the African American community, and a media that thrives on conflict in the black community, it’s not hard to imagine how this rivalry not only manifested but also thrived.

In the end, with Red Hook Summer, Lee achieves more than just trash talking. He leaves us 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. Writer, Gayle Jones, perhaps put the message best. In her post-soul novel, The Healing, she writes: “Some people think that freedom is to manage everybody but theyself. 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.

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19 thoughts on “Red Hook Summer: On Post-Soul Culture & Spike Lee Talkin’ Smack

  1. It’s rare that Spike achieves more than just trash talking, but then again I’ll have to watch the film.
    http://awesomerockreviews.wordpress.com

  2. another movie about the “soul – less” suburbs. Black people can’t even live in the suburbs without losing their soul? Give me a break.

    When I saw “She’s Gotta Have It,” I was 18 years old, I thought it was the greatest film I had ever seen. I thought Spike Lee must be a woman to make such a great film!

    But I don’t remember another one of your films, and for a while I went to see all of them, but they just don’t measure up to your boyhood brilliance. And now you fall on such a cliche at this?

    Lazy.

  3. Thank you for sharing ,i like nice post

  4. Very interesting! Thanks!

  5. I saw this film and did not even consider Lee was taking a dig at Perry, but now that it’s mentioned it would make sense. At the end of every Tyler Perry film, religion wins back your soul, but in this movie, religion did not, in fact it raised broader questions about who religion is for and how it’s used to either hide behind (as you mentioned) or to make a complete person. I enjoyed that Flik, as young as he is, did not “find his salvation” being at church but was trying to respect his grandfather – which is this was a Perry movie he would’ve found Jesus and everything would’ve been alright.

    Just some thoughts. I have mixed feelings about this movie in general but I didn’t even consider this lens…

    • naomi extra on said:

      Well said. I can completely relate to your mixed feelings about the film. I had them for days and still have them. I walked out of the theater sort of like “What?” Anyway, thanks for chiming in here!!

  6. Reblogged this on sideline skank and commented:
    INDIGO + CYPRESS | Red Hook Summer: On Post-Soul Culture & Spike Lee Talkin’ Smack

  7. I have not seen this movie but will put it on my list. Lee’s beef with Tyler Perry is a legitimate one because if you have seen one Tyler Perry movie, you have seen them all. Lee on the the other hand does explore other subjects. Just watch “25th Hour” or “Inside Man.” Perry has not gotten out of his comfort zone yet but perhaps he will.

    On a side note, this reminds me of the song “Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones which made fun of The BeeGees. Sometimes you have to imitate to make a point of what is wrong with the original work.

  8. Naomi Extra, Excellent article! As an African American residing abroad, I too, understand the strategy of divide and conquer. I have not yet seen the aforementioned film Red Hook Summer by Spike Lee, but anticipate the arrival to a theater in Europe. I respect the views, artistic pursuits, messages, and leadership qualities of Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes, and Spike Lee. As African Americans, it is extremely important to be cognizant of our history, to understand cause and effect, and to remain diplomatic in our cultural discussions, allowing freedom of expression for each and everyone. Congratulations Naomi Extra and Kudos to Ingido and Cypress.

    • naomi extra on said:

      Agreed! I lived in France for a few years and heard lots of opinions on Spike’s work. Interesting stuff. Lots could be said there. Thanks for your comment and your support, we appreciate it! Also, great to have you chime in from another continent.

  9. popculturechicka on said:

    Very captivating piece! Although I haven’t always enjoyed every Spike Lee film I’ve ever seen, he has always left me something to think about and I appreciate that. Whereas, I find Tyler Perry’s work kind of stale and one dimensional most of the time. I wish he would bring some fresh insight to the themes he explores. All in all, I continue to admire the bold creative spirit that makes Spike so interestingly unique.

  10. e weaver on said:

    I love Spike Lee’s work and am glad to read your review. I look forward to seeing the film.

  11. This was a very interesting read. I saw the premiere of the film in Brooklyn, and Spike Lee spoke after the film and answered the audience’s questions. Tyler Perry never came up during the Q&A, and while watching the film, I didn’t connect the themes. With that said, while reading your post, I began seeing the parallels come to life. In my personal opinion, Lee was not intentionally parodying Perry’s films. Audience members did ask him about the character development, as well as why he chose to tackle the topic of religion and the issue of molestation as it relates to the church. After hearing him speak about his intentions, I think he would be surprised and not completely pleased to hear someone drawing the comparisons you did. (But, I think your comparisons are spot on.) My husband and I have been long-time fans of his. We found the movie very entertaining, but I don’t think it ranks as his best work. In any case, thanks for your analysis. Enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    • naomi extra on said:

      Thanks for this comment! I agree with you on several points. Intentions are so tricky. I wonder if he would even admit if he had Perry anywhere in his consciousness when he was conceiving the film much less admit to making a film that responds to his work in any way. Thanks again for offering your thoughts here.

  12. I need to see this movie!

  13. what a great article that is really informative and innovative informed with new updates. its was really valuable. thank you very much. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

  14. naomi extra on said:

    dear readers and fellow bloggers, thank you so much for reading this and taking the time to comment. it is so appreciated!

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