A jarring, seemingly mishandled plot twist in his new movie left many critics calling the director inept, but perhaps that fact only proves the film's point.
For its first two-thirds, Spike Lee's new low-budget joint Red Hook Summer is a spunky coming-of-age tale about a pampered private-school kid named Flik (Jules Brown) learning life lessons from his preacher grandfather in the poor Brooklyn community he's forced to visit for the hot months. The film often hits exuberant high notes, with long takes that celebrate the eclectic neighborhood residents, occasional lapses into Super 8 photography, and a generous helping of pleasant church harmonies.
But then, and there's no easy way to say this, Lee and co-writer James McBride go nuclear on their little movie, with a plot twist that fits the story about as well as that asbestos-spreading IKEA fits the real-life Red Hook. (Spoilers ahead.)
In the midst of a grand, earth-shaking sermon from Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (played with magnificent fire by Clarke Peters), an unfamiliar man strolls into the back of the church and makes a bold proclamation: 15 years prior, in Georgia, Enoch had molested this man as a boy, a crime then subsequently covered up by his church, which paid the boy's family hush money and let Enoch go free to start a new life in Brooklyn. And as a way to erase any doubt about the truth, we then see a stomach-churning and wholly unnecessary flashback of Enoch engaging in the actual seduction.
Once this bomb has been dropped, and we've witnessed Enoch withstand some cloyingly Christ-like physical punishment at the hands of local gang members, the molestation is all but forgotten. We return to the question of Flik's self-discovery ("But what about you?" Enoch says after his confession, as the camera trains back on his grandson), and a short time later we're wrapping up with a wistful montage of bright, shiny Brooklyn days.
The victim, who emerged out of hiding for his grand, public declaration, disappears from the story. We receive no explanation from Flik's mother as to why she would place her prepubescent son in the sole care of a known pedophile for an entire summer. (That Flik's father recently died in Afghanistan does not close the book on this particular matter.)
It is such a flabbergasting development, so out of left field, that our first inclination is to blame its sudden inclusion on a careless last-minute rewrite. No way could such darkness, and then such insensitivity, spring naturally from such a warmhearted account of a little boy in Red Hook. Yet this was the story Lee was going to tell from the beginning, as he's made clear.
So, knowing that, we're left with a couple possibilities. One theory—and depending on where you look, the dominating one—is that Spike Lee is simply an incompetent, irresponsible filmmaker, audacious enough to sneak up on the topic of child molestation but totally unprepared for (or uninterested in) the challenge of how to confront the aftermath in an appropriate manner. And for a day after seeing the film, that's what I assumed was the case.
But I soon realized something. As I became infuriated with Lee for not adequately dealing with his movie's radioactive man, I began to wonder why we, as a society, don't adequately deal with ours. Institutions, be they religious or any other, have time and time again discovered child molesters within their ranks, and they far too often respond in the same way: They deny, deflect, sweep the problem where it can't be seen, let the guilty one go free, ignore what's really at stake. In short, they act like Flik and his mother.
If Lee had presented this material in a way that aligned with common sense—if Enoch's victim had gone to the police, if Flik had fled the apartment the instant he discovered the truth and his mother had apologized profusely for putting him in harm's way—I wouldn't have responded as strongly. I may have even left the theater with a warped sense of satisfaction: Yes, horrible things happened, but at least the wolf was ferreted away from the sheep and the world righted itself. The fact that it does not, even though the movie ends on an ostensibly happy note, leaves us off-balance, demanding answers.
Roger Ebert reached much the same conclusion back in 2004 for a very different Spike Lee joint: the corporate-whistleblower-impregnates-lesbians potpourri She Hate Me. The film, an attack on everything from shady bookkeeping to the stereotype of black men as sexual workhorses, met the ire of just about everyone who watched it (19 percent Tomatometer, $366,000 domestic box office). Forcing himself to parse through just why on earth Lee would make such a bizarre, tonally dissonant movie, Ebert hit upon the possibility of martyrdom.
Why did he make this movie, this way?
I could call him up and ask him, but maybe the point is to look at this film, ask myself that question and avoid the easy answer, which is that he made a preposterous movie because he didn't know any better. He knows better. He could have delivered a safe, politically correct, well-made film without even breathing hard. By getting mad at the movie, we arrive at the conclusions he intends. In a sense, he is sacrificing himself to get his message across.
Looking at this passage now, I'd say it applies even more readily to Red Hook Summer. Maybe it's because of all that church. When we complain about the ineptitude of Lee's preaching, we don't even realize we've become the choir.
Directors often like to brag that they don't care what the public thinks of them, but only a select few have gone so far as to deliberately piss away prestige for some imagined higher purpose. Think Jean-Luc Godard defiling King Lear, or Lars Von Trier punishing us with Antichrist. Is this the company Lee envisions himself in? I hope so, because this is the only way I can watch Red Hook Summer and consider it a success.
"We live in a world of should-not-be," Bishop Enoch declares during one of his fiery sermons, and we realize too late he's referring to himself. It should not be that anyone who would anoint themselves the gatekeeper between us and God would act out on such moral turpitude and then conceal the sin. Yet we know that what should not be is. And if we started doing a better job talking about these things, then maybe Lee could, too.