Spike Lee's 'Red Hook Summer' Screened At Sundance Offers A Nuanced Overview Of African American Christianity
By Dick Staub
Religion News Service
PARK CITY, Utah (RNS) I have a confession to make.
The only real reason I saw Spike Lee's new film at the Sundance Film Festival here 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, I didn't attend "Red Hook Summer" 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.
(Dick Staub is author of "About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive" and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com)
Related on HuffPost:Below, a list of religion themed films screened at Sundance Film Festival 2012
'Corpo Celeste' (Heavenly Body)
After growing up in Switzerland, 13-year-old Marta returns to a city in southern Italy with her mother and older sister. Independent and inquisitive, she joins a catechism class at a local church. However, the games and religious pop songs she encounters there do not nearly satisfy her interest in faith. Struggling to find her place, Marta pushes the boundaries of the class, the priest, and the church. Contemplating religion is an enduring tradition in Italian cinema, but Rohrwacher brings a fresh inflection and a provocative artistic vision. Her vérité aesthetic emphasizes character and subtle behavior. Uninterested in shallow critique, "Corpo Celeste" posits a girl who is resolutely searching for deeper truths. Marta instinctively rebels against the apathy and hypocrisy of the adults around her, including a priest who is more interested in his career than he is in faith. Ultimately, her spirituality is as much of the Earth as it is of the heavens. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Young & Wild'
Daniela is a petite, pretty teenager raised in the bosom of a strict and well-to-do evangelical family in Santiago, Chile. Daniela is also a 17-year-old who finds that her raging sexual drive is difficult to reconcile with the orders of her religion. With no outlet for her desire, Daniela taps into a rampant underground network of other horny teenagers through her sexually charged blog. As she types the gospel of her life as a fornicator online, Daniela still goes to church and prays to Jesus, "Lord, see to it that Mother doesn't type youngandwild.blogspot.com!" Director Marialy Rivas's handsome debut feature is a playful and energetic coming-of-age story about a young woman who refuses to make choices that limit her pleasure. Brought to life by an attractive cast, led by the enigmatic Alicia Rodríguez, Young & Wild romps through the burning fires of religious fervor and youthful sexual energy to deliver a delightful portrait of contemporary teenage life in Santiago. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
A popular sensation in medieval Europe, bestiaries were catalogs of beasts featuring exotic animal illustrations, zoological wisdom, and ancient legends. Denis Côté's startling "Bestiaire" unfolds like a filmic picture book where both humans and animals are on display. As we observe them, they also observe us and one another, invoking the Hindu idea of darshan: a mutual beholding that initiates a shift in consciousness. Fascinating, beguiling creatures like buffalo, hyenas, zookeepers, zebras, taxidermists, rhinos, and ostriches silently inhabit uncluttered, beautifully composed frames of a locked-off camera, conducting curious affairs in holding pens and fields. Their unself-consciousness before the camera's eye renders them equally objectified. Whether we anthropomorphize, poeticize, abstract, or judge them is up to us. Côté invites his audience to reflect on control and power as lions rattle cages, a taxidermist recreates a duck, and artists copy a stuffed deer. Using the film form to challenge the very notion of representation, "Bestiaire" is an elegant, bewitching meditation on the nature of sentience and the boundaries between nature and "civilization." <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'5 Broken Cameras'
Five broken cameras--and each one has a powerful tale to tell. Embedded in the bullet-ridden remains of digital technology is the story of Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil'in, which famously chose nonviolent resistance when the Israeli army encroached upon its land to make room for Jewish colonists. Emad buys his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. Over the course of the film, he becomes the peaceful archivist of an escalating struggle as olive trees are bulldozed, lives are lost, and a wall is built to segregate burgeoning Israeli settlements. Gibreel's loss of innocence and the destruction of each camera are potent metaphors in a deeply personal documentary that vividly portrays a conflict many of us think we know. Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, joins forces with Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and--from the wreckage of five broken cameras--two filmmakers create one extraordinary work of art. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Les Conquerants' (The Conquerors)
At the dawn of time, a young man and woman set out to conquer an inhospitable land and transform it into paradise. Between prehistory and Genesis, Eden and hell, this animated film questions human conquests and the rise of civilizations. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Love Free Or Die'
In June 2003, the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire came under fire when it became the first to elect an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as a bishop. Since that flash point, Robinson has been at the center of the contentious battle for LGBT people to receive full acceptance in the faith. Director Macky Alston (whose film, Family Name, won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival) follows Robinson into the breach in the struggle for equality. While resolute in his calling, Robinson grows increasingly critical of the central role that religious institutions have played in fostering homophobia and hatred. He is pointedly not invited to a once-a-decade convocation of bishops and courts controversy by attending. His presence the next year for the Episcopal General Convention underscores the impact of its impending decisions about the church's stance on the consecration of future gay bishops and the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. While Robinson never intended to be the poster boy for gay bishops, Love Free or Die demonstrates that he has become a beacon of hope for millions. His history-making church provides a model for other communities of faith to treat all people with dignity and respect, regardless of their sexuality. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
During his lifetime, each man plays cosmic chess against the devil. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Red Hook Summer'
When his mom deposits him at the Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn to spend the summer with the grandfather he's never met, young Flik may as well have landed on Mars. Fresh from his cushy life in Atlanta, he's bored and friendless, and his strict grandfather, Enoch, a firebrand preacher, is bent on getting him to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Only Chazz, the feisty girl from church, provides a diversion from the drudgery. As hot summer simmers and Sunday mornings brim with Enoch's operatic sermons, things turn anything but dull as people's conflicting agendas collide. Playfully ironic, heightened, yet grounded, Spike Lee's bold new movie returns him to his roots, where lovable, larger-than-life characters form the tinderbox of a tight-knit community. A story about the coexistence of altruism and corruption, "Red Hook Summer" toys with expectations, seducing us with the promise of moral and spiritual transcendence. Spike is back in the 'hood. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California-based journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, "The Surrogate" chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O'Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate. What transpires over a handful of sessions transforms them both. Rivetingly, sensitively, and humorously portrayed by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, the couple's clinical exercise becomes a tender, awkward, and gracious journey from isolation to connection -- corporal and spiritual. This poet's extraordinary story resonates with the elegance and precision of a poem. No line in "The Surrogate is extraneous," no frame accidental. Filmmaker Ben Lewin's masterful brushstrokes endow every character with fullness and authenticity, fashioning rich metaphors and emotional nuance and fusing them into an exquisite, unforgettable awakening. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
Sundance Film Festival 2012 Opens