Thursday, May 16, 2013

Smokin' Another Spike Lee Joint

“Red Hook Summer,” Film by Spike Lee, 2012

Spike Lee is one of those directors who’s movies always have something to offer, even if the film itself is not very strong.  That is the sign of a good director.  “Red Hook Summer” is his latest film, mostly ignored by critics.  Lee told Quentin Tarantino recently that ‘slavery was not a spaghetti western’ and that is one of the great things about Lee.  Black people are not fucking clichés.  “Django,” Tarantino’s latest, runs like a revenge fantasy comedy/melodrama.  There is so much falsity about the whole thing, you can’t help but laugh – and then get bored.  After all, it is 2.5 long hours of predictable shooting and fake blood.  Like “Tremé,” the series filmed in New Orleans after Katrina (“Tremé” is reviewed below), Lee doesn’t people his movies with black gangsters, black buffoons or many stereotypes.  Now, I do have a weakness for Madea – one of my all time favorite funny women.  (As in, “Who you callin’ a buffoon?  YOU a buffoon!  Or did you call me a baboon? You racist son of a bitch!  I should slap your lips off.”)  But the middle-class black people in the rest of the Tyler Perry cohort should go back to Cosbyville.  Perhaps Medea could send them there…

‘Red Hook Summer’ concerns a 13-year-old Atlanta boy coming to visit his grandfather in Red Hook, New York for summer vacation.  It could have been only a gauzy coming-of-age story, set in storied Nu Yawk, but instead confronts two kinds of black.  “Old-time” religious black and ‘mohawk’ middle-class youth black, wielding his iPad camera like a junior Spike.  Grandpa is a Jesus nut and never shuts up about it.  This harangue becomes claustrophobic at some point during the film even for most viewers, perhaps just the way “Flik” feels it.  Flik’s a vegan, an atheist and won’t have anything to do with Grandpa Rouse’s lunacies.  Rouse locks the vegan food that his mother sent in a cupboard, and makes him eat eggs and ham.  Yeah.  So Flik steals chips and soda from the basement of “Little Heaven” to survive, the church where Rouse is the Bishop.  Rouse makes him work around the church, hand out leaflets for church meetings and generally tries to intimidate him into religion.  Flik wants to go home and his mother tells him to just try to survive.  Your sympathies as a viewer are with the young boy Flik, though some may be with Rouse.  If so, Spike has a surprise for you.

TV comedian Kamau Bell appeared this winter at the Cedar in Minneapolis, and, among his mostly ethnic and liberal humor, made fun of atheists as being somewhere on the level of Ben Affleck. (For my take on Affleck, see review of “Argo,” below.)  Actual black radicals in the ‘60s and ‘70s were wary of the church and the pastors, as they knew they were the conservative part of the black population.  MLK, the best of the preachers, was not for ‘black power’ and supported ‘turning the other cheek’ – an event Malcolm X derided.  Many black radicals in that time became Marxists, including the Black Panther Party, Amiri Baraka, many in SNCC, Robert Williams and Detroit’s various Leagues of Revolutionary Black Workers, among others.  We won't get started on African Marxists.  Nearly all Marxists are atheists.  So evidently you can be black and an atheist too.  Not by Kamau Bell!  Well, Kamau Bell is no radical, so no surprise here.  He’s a good left-Democrat and has a show on the FX network and you don’t. 

Atheists actually can suffer capital punishment in 7 countries in the world, all Muslim ones.  6 states in the U.S. have laws prohibiting atheists from public office and juries. Atheists are more hated than gay people, at least according to U.S. surveys.  This and more is all in a 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).  So not exactly “Ben Affleck” status.  After all, Michelle Obama gave him an Oscar.   

Kamau Bell grew up in a conventional culture that is saturated with the church, and his attitude is somewhat understandable.  He’s blazingly pro-gay and some black churches are not – so he should wonder about that.  Marx called religion the ‘opiate of the people’ and nowhere is this appellation more appropriate than the black (and Latino) church.  The black church has also been a progressive institution, unavoidably I’d say, and only up to a point.  In white churches, on the other hand, so many are sunk in the ‘prosperity gospel’ or blandness that they mostly appeal to well-off whites – or those hoping to be so. (See review of “God and Wal-Mart,” reviewed below.) 

Well, for my money, Spike Lee has turned on that crazy black religiosity in this film.  The boy befriends a pretty local girl, daughter of one of the church members, and they spend the summer hanging out, even though they are different.  Her mother tells Rouse, over Rouse’s grousing, that Flik is ‘the nicest boy” her Chazz has ever met.  Flik makes an amateur bunch of shots of his experiences that summer on his iPad, and gives it to Chazz when they part.  In return, Chazz gives all she’s got – a cross necklace. 

Music is the soul of Little Heaven and the organist plays like he’s Booker T, while the Bishop preaches. The organist is Jonathan Batiste, New Orleans and now Harlem musician and educator. The little, broke congregation dances and sings, and yeah, its like a nightclub for people who don’t go to nightclubs.  Good shit.  Way better than white church music, as we all know.  Gospel was part of the birth of the blues and rock and roll, and for that we can be thankful. 

Lee gets in his digs at white homeowners and gentrifiers, the wish for making it big in the stock market, the ignoring of black poverty and the forgotten Red Hook projects.  The drunk church deacon downstairs knows the limitations of the Lord.  Lee’s political ideas are there.  And then some.  It turns out a ‘little Catholic’ bleeds into this film.  While preaching one Sunday, Bishop Rouse is confronted by a young man who accuses him of molestation years ago.  It is clear that the man is telling the truth, even to the Bishop’s friends and deacons in the church.  The Bishop forlornly admits it to Flik, while being filmed on the iPad, describing the sexual events while he worked at a church in Atlanta.  That church told him to leave when they discovered the abuse.  After this, Flik returns to Atlanta, where Flik’s mother, who is also Rouse’s estranged daughter, live.  And Rouse has to join him, as he is run out of Little Heaven.  So the point Lee is trying to make here, I think, is that people who are a bit too ‘emotionally’ over the top in their love of Jesus may be hiding something that you don’t want to know about.  Yeah, Jesus is failed by another of his fans. 

The film ends with the gauzy pastiche of the iPad patchwork shot by Flik all summer – the black and Puerto Rican people of this immortal neighborhood on Brooklyn, Long Island.  “On the Waterfront” was set in Red Hook, and so was “A View From the Bridge,” by Arthur Miller and “Memos from Purgatory” by Harlan Ellison.

While 'Red Hook Summer' doesn't hold together very well, Lee takes a stab at black religion and survives.  Perhaps Kamau Bell too should realize being black doesn’t mean being religiously conservative.  Although that might not get the laughs on FX.

And I saw it on Netflix
Red Frog
May 14, 2013

No comments: