Colors! Bright, primary colors. United Colors of Benetton colors. Ghanaian marketplace colors. Spike Lee slaps you in the face with his big splashy palette from the first scene. Yellow! Blue! Orange! A red rug, a purple church, red blood. Never go to a Spike Lee film expecting a traditional, polished, smooth narrative. His aesthetic is always cranky, edgy, and purposely off kilter.
This color explosion is welcome. It is so Spike Lee. It is that enhanced reality that makes everything uniquely his vision. It is that cartoony visual that lets you know you are at a being invited into his the magic lantern.
The second pillar of his Red Hook spectacle is the stunning songs by Judith Hill and the music production of Bruce Hornsby. The soundtrack for this film might just outlast the memory of the visuals -- the way Curtis Mayfield's Superfly continues on today. It walks us into the pain and beauty, the anger and redemption, that is African American music. Each song comments on and advances the story. In doing so, the music does not just enhance the film, it lays down the theme and heart of it.
And finally there's Clarke Peters, whose performance as Bishop Enoch Rouse simply makes the movie. He could carry this whole production as a solo performance if he were asked to. Peters has achieved high marks with his role as Detective Freamon in The Wire and Big Chief Lambreaux in Treme. But in this one he kills it, simply shuts it down.
You can count on Spike Lee to throw in an homage or two. Besides Peters, he brings in Isiah Whitlock Jr. from The Wire and even has him repeat the famous your 'sheeeeit' line -- one that has become something of a cliché. He also features himself as Mookie (now a little older and addressed as Mr. Mookie) from Sal's Famous pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
My only question is whether these three elements, colossal as they are, can carry the whole movie. Because there is no getting around it: the teenage actors, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, just don't work out at all. Especially in their dialogues with each other, it is like the needle scraping across a vinyl record.
Spike Lee is so fearless about going for it, trying new things, breaking from the conventional approach to moviemaking that sometimes you've got to cut him some slack. No risks taken, no new approaches discovered. In spite of his phenomenal success, his international fame, his strong creative team, he remains an outsider in his perspective and in his approach to filmmaking. So maybe he did not use a traditional casting company, he did not bring in drama coaches experienced in working with young people. He rolled the dice. Maybe it would have worked out great. But it didn't. I'm afraid these actors would have been cut from most high school productions. I wish them well. I'm sure they will build on this experience. But it was really just bad.
But you may be able to, like me, enjoy the film enormously, be pushed by it to think about some disturbing and difficult issues. Watching a Spike Lee film is not just enjoyable, it is humbling. He tells a story about the black community, about America, that is never one-dimensional, always complex. But the shock of the story, the wallop, sneaks up on you in the middle the everydayness of the narrative. With that special Spike Lee vision, with the incredible visual and musical panorama, and with the redoubtable Clarke Peters, I think we can just overlook the stuff that is off.
Follow Rick Ayers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rick_ayers