Spike Lee’s movie is called Red Hook Summer, but it delivered a few stunning left hooks and right hooks to the audience during its Sunday night debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Going into the Park City showcase, the film appeared to be a coming-of-age story about an Atlanta boy named Flik, who ends up spending the summer with his preacher grandfather in the Red Hook housing project of Brooklyn. And it is that, for about three quarters of the running time. Flik bristles under the watch of his Bible-thumping grandfather (played by The Wire‘s Clarke Peters), gets life lessons from Mookie, Lee’s character from Do the Right Thing (who’s still delivering Sal’s Famous Pizzas two decades later), quarrels with a couple of local gang members, and strikes up a friendship with a troublemaking church girl named Chazz.
In the final stretch of the movie, at the end of yet another long-running sermon from the preacher, Red Hook Summer takes a stark twist (which we won’t spoil here), abandoning the warm childhood story and introducing a disturbing new plot element that divided the audience. At a post-screening Q&A with Lee, things got even more high-octane wild.
Multiplying the black population of Utah? Random appearances by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Chris Rock? A top-of-his-lungs rant against Hollywood that includes the shouted line “they know nothing about black people”?
Here’s an approximate minute-by-minute account of Red Hook Summer‘s aftermath.
8:25 p.m. — Screening ends. There had already been a slow trickle of walkouts, most before the movie’s big twist. As the credits roll, Sundance’s 1,200-seat Eccles theater is a sea of glowing smartphones. Divided but mostly negative reactions bombard Twitter.
8:26 — First negative reaction tweeted by ComingSoon.net’s @WkndWarriorCS: “Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer joins Hounddog, Downloading Nancy and [The Informers] as one of the worst movies to ever premiere at #sundance.”
8:27 — Lee comes out on stage: “What’s the score?” There’s a cacophony of shouts. Someone says, “We WON!” (Turns out some people were not tweeting, but rather checking the Giants-49ers game.) “What! NEW YORK GIANTS!! GOING TO THE SUPERBOWL!!” Lee shouts.
“Is Brooklyn in the house?” Lee asks, drawing cheers from a large group that accompanied him, sitting in the front right of the theater. “We doubled the black population of Utah!” Lee laughs. “Maybe tripled it, up in this room!”
8:28 — Lee begins introducing the cast and crew. One of the first is Nate Parker, who plays a gang member in the movie (and also costarred in last night’s Sundance movie Arbitrage, as well as this weekend’s wide-release World War II fighter pilot drama Red Tails.) “And his costar — not in this movie, but in Red Tails — Cuba Gooding Jr.! Stand up, baby.” Gooding rises and waves to the crowd with an awkward smile. “Go check out Red Tails,” Lee tells everyone.
8:29 — Crew members on Red Hook Summer are introduced, among them musician Bruce Hornsby, who did some of the score for the film. “Now we have the two discoveries, who played Flik and Chazz,” Lee said. “Toni Lysaith and Jules Brown, come on up.” Both are nonprofessionals Lee found in the drama class of his old Brooklyn middle school. Then he introduces their teacher, Edwin G. Robinson.
8:31 — Lee then introduces his lead actor (SPOILER ALERT AHEAD): “Now, the man had a haaaaaard part. It’s very hard, very hard … to make a pedophile a human being. And that’s why I knew I needed a great talent. One of the great actors working today — Mr. Clarke Peters, come on up.”
8:33 — Second negative reaction hits as Erik Childress of efilmcritic.com tweets: “I have so many negative things to say about Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER that I don’t know where to begin.” Moments later, stunned by the out-of-nowhere twist, yours truly tweets via @Breznican: “Okay, so Red Hook Summer ISN’T a coming-of-age movie. It’s a what-the-hell?!? movie.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Steven Zeitchik tweets: “Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer is his most interesting/ambitious film in yrs, tho the last section will be polarizing.” He’s not kidding.