At the heart of Spike Lee’s cinema, as with his newest film Red Hook Summer, is the neighborhood. From the very beginning, he name checked a Brooklyn neighborhood in the title of his student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, while his follow-up, the feature debut She’s Gotta Have It, weaves four characters, a woman and three suitors, through Brooklyn, mapping their relationships to the neighborhoods through speech, behavior and appearance, and the gorgeous cinematography of Ernest Dickerson captured a kind of iconic locality. From there, Lee made School Daze, a film not about neighborhoods per se but which may as well be: portraying the clash of rival fraternities and sororities, Lee understands how difference, bounded by functional commonalities, is the essence of community. This flourished most clearly in his next film, his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, one of the handful of films that is quite explicitly about a neighborhood, which in turns becomes something of the film’s main character, a living, breathing and negotiated space that completely shapes its inhabitants behavior.
Having made his masterpiece after scattershot forays into the thematic territory of the neighborhood and its communities, Lee went off in different directions. Mo’ Better Blues plays the theme lightly, but neighborhood functions always as subtext, at the very least joining together characters, via proximity, who might otherwise not interact—one’s neighborhood, then, can be a trap as well as a nourishing home. Jungle Fever brings back School Daze’s conflict of two groups that share the same turf and the inter-ethnic strife of Do the Right Thing, ending with Flipper Purify’s (Wesley Snipes) agonized cry as he recognizes the destructive, corrupting potential of the neighborhood in the form of a young addict prostitute. This lesson, that one’s communal upbringing can shape one’s life in negative ways, constricting it, is filtered into Lee’s adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which it is already present through X’s own commentary: unsurprisingly, Lee chooses to quote the passage in which X laments how many intelligent black men turned to a life of crime because of the limited opportunities afforded to them, rather than using their skills to be, for example, mathematicians. The neighborhood can be cancerous, as it is a spacialized embodiment of those forces of injustice already present in society at large.
Perhaps recognizing a cynical attitude towards the community in these works, Lee next turned to Crooklyn, a lyrical, nostalgic film, written in collaboration with his two sisters Cinqué and Joie, that explicitly draws from the Lee family’s own personal history. From the opening credits sequence, a bravura trip through Lee’s childhood Brooklyn that evokes the texture of memory, there is greater, warmer fondness for the neighborhood here, as if Lee is recognizing how impossible it is to disentangle who he is from where he was raised. It is this film that most resembles Lee’s newest film Red Hook Summer, named for a neighborhood in Brooklyn in a way that candidly signals Lee’s concerns. In both of these works, Lee’s camera floats around liberated: in Crooklyn, it is made to follow the tangled path of memory, while it obeys the casual pace of a summer holiday in Red Hook Summer. Lacking the tight structure of his other works, these two films suggest the very act itself of strolling through the neighborhood with no particular destination, and there’s a palpable affection that sticks to these films like sweat on the skin during a hot summer day.
But Red Hook Summer is not the casual stroll through the ‘hood that its first half signals to the audience. In the film’s second half, Lee explores the darker side of the community. This is not the darkness of Jungle Fever or Malcolm X, in which the neighborhood translates the vectors of destructive, impersonal forces into trajectories that hurt the members of a community. Instead, Red Hook Summer explores the kind of active, intentional darkness—call it evil, if you will—that lurks in metaphorical alleyways of the neighborhood. The crack den scene in Jungle Fever is disturbingly traumatizing, but it depicts the evil of an impersonal force, addiction. Those who might deal drugs to keep the addicts in supply are just middlemen. It is in the films that Lee made after Crooklyn that he explores this more overt dimension of evil.
In Clockers, adapted from a novel by that great fellow artist of the neighborhood Richard Price, evil is not just the drug trade but men who wield their power to control others, actively working to undermine the community’s health. Clockers is also a film about choices, never chalking up the evil in any given community to simple determinism, and because choices are possible, because it is not merely impersonal forces that play with human beings like puppets, the moral failing also becomes personalized. The failure to make the right choice stings all the more. Girl 6 ratchets this territorial evil up a notch: the film’s climax depicts a phone sex operator named Judy (Theresa Randle) who is terrorized by a client (Michael Imperioli) detailing nauseating, debased snuff film fantasies to her. Unlike most of Judy’s clients, spread out across the country, this man lives in her neighborhood and knows where she lives. It is unclear how much he exists in reality, though, and how much he is merely the embodiment of Judy’s own self-hatred, but the urge to personalize communal evil is nonetheless obeyed, making for one of Lee’s most challenging and unsettling films.
After Get on the Bus and He Got Game, two films that deal tangentially with communities (Los Angeles as a whole and Coney Island in Brooklyn, respectively) while largely pursuing other themes, Lee made Summer of Sam, which brings the personalized evil of Girl 6 to its logical conclusion. It is the story of one of New York City’s most notorious serial killers. Examining predominantly an Italian-American community in the Bronx, Summer of Sam suggests literally what Girl 6 presents partly as a manifestation of individual psychology: in the modern age, anyone in your neighborhood could be a serial killer, the embodiment of pure evil. Murder has featured in some of Lee’s other films, but here it is something different. A serial killer is a few steps removed from even the most cold-blooded gangster: killing for joy, he is a human aberration. But in the fracturing of community as depicted in Summer of Sam, how does one identify a person like that, someone who exists apart from humanity proper? Punk rocker Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is stigmatized for his appearance and his part-time gig as an erotic dancer in a gay theater, and his former friends wonder if maybe he is the Son of Sam, this outsider who they grew up with but who is now so different.
The manner in which evil can seem so familiar and yet so foreign at the same time, which permeates Summer of Sam, returns in Red Hook Summer, now sad and mournful. The film takes place many years after Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) sexually abused a young boy and then fled Atlanta for Red Hook. Familiarity and trust, two essential elements of the neighborhood community, becomes twisted as they were in Summer of Sam, this time along three dimensions: the neighborhood, the church and the family. But Enoch is not Red Hook Summer’s protagonist. That would be his grandson Flik (Jules Brown), who stays with him for the summer. Despite Enoch’s previous abuse of a powerless young boy, he now seems weak and frail, not deserving our sympathy but perhaps not much more than a shell of a person.
We hardly wonder whether Flik, only thirteen years old, will fall victim to Enoch and instead wonder whether Enoch himself is the one in greatest physical danger—a correct instinct: Enoch is later beaten up by a crew of local drug dealers, an ironic reversal of Jungle Fever’s and Clockers’ fears in that they actually protect the community here rather than destroy it. If Red Hook Summer, which presents Enoch’s misdeeds through flashback to locate them in the distant and unchangeable past, cannot redeem this man, as fallen as he is evil, it can at least offer choice, that great personalization of morality, to Flik, who in the final scene gives up his treasured iPad to his friend from the summer Chazz (Toni Lysaith). Flik happily flees the worst aspects of the neighborhood but also honors the best. In one scene, Chazz pretends to fling herself off a bridge in order to elicit the aloof Flik to show concern: as much as we might try to distance ourselves from communities—in Flik’s case, merely a temporary one—we are always pulled back in by the people who live there. Lee has chronicled the neighborhood throughout his career, including his two New Orleans documentaries, but there is no getting beyond it, merely attempts to understand it better.