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.