The real reason I saw Spike Lee’s new film at the Sundance Film Festival is because it is set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, where my oldest daughter started her career in an elementary school with Teach for America.
Even though I think and write about religion for a living, my primary reason for attending “Red Hook Summer” was not because the program guide describes it as the story of a “firebrand preacher bent on getting (his grandson) to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.”
After all, why would anyone expect a nuanced, respectful exploration of the black church in America from Spike Lee? Let’s face it, the words “Spike Lee” and “theologian” don’t roll off the tongue very easily, if at all.
So imagine my surprise when “Red Hook Summer” delivered a humorous, honest look at the vibrancy, complexity, sincerity and messiness of African-American Christianity.
The story begins with Flik, a teenager who attends a private school in Atlanta and enjoys the finer things of life. His life is turned upside down when his mother sends him off to Brooklyn for the summer to stay with his preacher grandfather, Enoch.
Flik is certainly unprepared for life in the projects, but is even less prepared for working every day at his grandfather’s Little Piece of Heaven church. The only upside is meeting Chazz, a sassy teen who has learned to negotiate life on the streets of Red Hook with her life in the church.
She’s a believer but not stuffy about it, and helps Flik get through the Sunday worship service, which is punctuated by Enoch’s theatrical rants, the spirited “Amens!” of the congregation and the melodramatic sounds of the Hammond organ.
The heart of this film is grandpa Enoch. As the story begins we get hints that Enoch is a man with a past, and it reaches its dramatic climax when we realize that though Enoch is done with his past, his past is not done with him.
Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon from “The Wire”) in the role of Enoch delivers a textured, multi-layered performance that does for the role of a black pastor what Robert Duvall did for revivalists in “The Apostle.” These characters are believable, complicated and likable.
At the Q&A following the film, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one surprised that Lee delivered a thoughtful, respectful and savvy film about religion. The first audience question was about Lee’s personal religious background. He never attended church as a boy in Brooklyn, he explained, although some summers he was sent to stay with relatives in Atlanta who made sure he did.
Suffice it to say that church and religion have not played a central role in Lee’s life.
So what is the source of the film’s religious content? To answer that question, Lee introduced his co-author on the script, James McBride, and the richness of the film immediately made complete sense.
I interviewed McBride in Chicago in the 1990’s about his best-selling book “The Color of Water.” It was an autobiographical account of his Jewish mother who converted to Christianity and, with her husband, founded the church where “Red Hook Summer” was filmed.
McBride talked about his belief in God and Jesus, and said his faith was renewed and strengthened during the writing and making of the film. He also talked about spirited debates with Lee about certain scenes where McBride’s desire to respect religion collided with Lee’s determination to keep it gritty and real. It was a productive tension, and it worked.
I still find it fascinating that Lee would make a film about religion, and that he teamed up with McBride to do it. Sundance is all about telling stories, and “Red Hook Summer” tells a center-stage story about the importance of religion.