Film: Red Hook Summer
For Your Consideration: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee and James McBride
Realistic Nominations: None
Oscar Scene: “We live in a world of SHOULD! NOT! BE!”
Even for a Spike Lee joint, the reactions to Red Hook Summer were extremely polarizing, which probably explains its half-hearted distribution by Variance. Though I lean toward the “pro” side of that debate, it’s hard to argue the criticisms of Lee’s shaky setups, utterly dreadful performances from Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, and a third-act twist that almost (more on that in a minute) derails the whole picture. Even with those flaws, conviction goes a long way in my book, and Red Hook Summer is enriched with rare levels of hope and passion. Giving that emotional conviction its lasting power, however, is Clarke Peters’ astounding performance as Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse.
Like the best film characters, Enoch isn’t always easy to like. It’s understandable for an inner-city preacher to believe every problem in the world can be solved with faith in Jesus, but failing to see how the modern world reacts to such unwavering sentiment is the source of a surprising amount of conflict between Enoch and his grandson Flik Royale, and to Lee’s credit he doesn’t stack the deck either way (though Brown’s wooden expressions of Flik’s resistance certainly doesn’t help). The genius of Peters is that he doesn’t shy away from this fatal flaw in Enoch but also has us understand what makes religion such a unifying force in uncertain times through his hypnotic sermons. What could have been obvious stilted didactics instead become – thanks to Peters putting on one hell of a show while laying out stark observations of social injustice – the most alive portions of the story.
The clash of cultures is what it boils down to in Red Hook Summer, and when Lee’s approach to it lapses or wanders, Peters brings it back with equal levels of graciousness and abrasiveness, continually challenging our perception of him. He even adds credibility to the film’s jarring twist with a harrowing, frightened desperation for sincere atonement just when it seems impossible for Red Hook Summer to regain its footing. His inhabitation of this fascinating, complex character is fresh, invigorating, powerful and nuanced in all the right ways, and that the film can’t quite live up to him is no reason why he shouldn’t be a Best Actor nominee.