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Spike Lee on the set of his new joint, “Red Hook Summer.” — PHOTO BY DAVID LEE, COURTESY 40 ACRES AND A MULE FILMWORKS
Director Spike Lee’s most recent feature films have been larger studio releases, including “Miracle at St. Anna” with Derek Luke and Michael Ealy and “Inside Man,” starring Denzel Washington. With the release of “Red Hook Summer,’ now open in theaters, he returns to the smaller, more intimate style that made such an impact in the ’80s, when he introduced “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.”
“Red Hook Summer,” co-written by Lee and James McBride, is the story of Flik Royale, a young boy from middle class Atlanta, who comes to meet his maternal grandfather for the first time, and spend the summer with him in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing project. Although he initially is not happy about it, Flik has fun in spite of himself, learns some serious life lessons, and realizes that there is a whole world outside of Atlanta.
Lee was recently in Philadelphia to promote “Red Hook Summer,” and I sat down with him at Ms. Tootsie’s, the popular soul food restaurant on South Street, to discuss his latest project. I’ve interviewed Lee on several occasions, and as always, he was in a “New York state of mind.”
“It’s going back to my ongoing chronicles of Brooklyn, New York,” Lee said of “Red Hook Summer,” which he financed completely on his own. “It started with the first one, ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ in 1989, ‘Do the Right Thing,’ 1989, then ‘Crooklyn,’ then ‘Clockers,’ ‘He Got Game,’ and now ‘Red Hook Summer,’ so that’s six films.”
When asked why he chose Red Hook in particular as the setting for his film, Lee responded. “Many different reasons. It’s a very strange, peculiar, cut-off neighborhood from the rest of Brooklyn. James McBride grew up in Red Hook. (NBA star) Carmello Anthony is from Red Hook.”
The story is told through three outstanding young actors including Jules Brown as Flik, Toni Lysaith as Chazz Morningstar and Sincere Peters as 12-year-old Blessing Rowe. “They all went to my old junior high school,” Lee said. “There was a drama teacher there — Mr. Evan Robinson. He’s a great teacher, and once James and I wrote the script, I knew that I could go just sit in the back of his class and find [good young actors]. I said, ‘There goes Flik. There goes Chazz. There goes Blessing.’”
While “Red Hook Summer” has an overall atmosphere of innocence, it does ultimately deal with some adult issues, and I asked Lee why he chose to tell this story through the eyes of young people.
“James McBride and I both have teenagers, Lee said. “We had breakfast one morning and said, ‘How come we don’t see kids like our teenagers in films?’ That’s where it started.”
Lee also enlists the services of the talented Nate Parker, who has appeared in “The Great Debaters,” “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Red Tails,” playing noble, upstanding characters or an individual who ultimately finds redemption. However, in “Red Hook Summer,” he plays Box, a gang leader who appears to be torn between good and evil.
“I didn’t want to do another stereotypical portrayal of a gang member,” Lee explained. “You need great actors to elevate your material, or it’s just going to be the same thing again and again and again.”
While summer blockbusters have their place, I was happy to see Lee revisit the provocative storytelling that indeed is his strength. “This is no big studio film, so you will not see any TV ads for it,” he said. “This is all grassroots. Beginning with people like yourself, we’re going to get the word out,” Lee said. “Radio stations, TV stuff, social media — all that’s being done.”
So as the latest “Spike Lee Joint” faces its opening weekend, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker said in parting, “Just come out and see it, and make up your own mind.”