Film festival screenings can take some unexpected turns. But unexpected is an understatement for what happened when Spike Lee took the stage Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival to field questions about his new film, "Red Hook Summer."
After introducing the cast and principals of the low-budget independent -- about a bible-thumping preacher and his intelligent but alienated grandson in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood -- Lee then fielded a query from an unlikely audience member. "Hey, it's Chris Rock," actor Jules Brown, who plays the grandson, said from the stage.
And indeed, there was Rock, asking a reasonable question about how the movie would have looked had it been made at a studio. ("Would you have blown things up?" he deadpanned.)
Lee, who had already been moving freely about the stage riffing about everything from the New York Giants' playoff win to the lack of black people in Utah, came back with what he would later acknowledge was a "tirade" about the studio world. Most notably, he said that "they [studios] know nothing about black people ... and they're going to give me notes about what a 13-year-old boy and girl are doing in Red Hook? [Shoot] no," he said, repeating it several times, only without saying 'shoot' and without sounding like he was joking. He also seemed to call out Universal for dithering on a planned sequel to "Inside Man."
He then defused the moment -- somewhat -- by calling the comments a tirade and trying a joke that "my wife is looking at me like I'm crazy."
It didn't help -- or, rather, it made things more surreal -- that the voluble Lee had just shown what was by any standard one of his most audacious films in years, a movie that had been shot in ultra-secrecy over just 19 days on a few Brooklyn blocks. For about two-thirds of its running time a gritty and music-heavy street drama about an assortment of neighborhood characters (with religion instead of race as its main Lee preoccupation this time around), the film in its last section takes a turn to the shocking.
Without giving too much away, we'll just say that a main character is revealed with little warning to have committed a heinous act. A scene involving a sex act and the Bible is involved, and we won't sugarcoat it -- it will be polarizing even to hardened viewers. In the lobby afterward, normally jaded festival-goers were arguing over whether the movie, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, was hateful and/or misanthropic. Even the actors admitted some scenes were hard for them to watch.
But it was also, undeniably, Lee doing what he does best: using low-budget filmmaking and street-friendly storytelling as a means of provocation.
The film also had plenty of Easter eggs to "Do The Right Thing," with Lee's Mookie appearing in several scenes (he's still delivering for Sal's Pizza; apparently it had been rebuilt) and sly references to famous lines from the 1989 classic, such as "And that's the truth, Ruth."
But Lee, who's been saying the movie is simply another one of his nearly half-dozen films set on the streets of Brooklyn, wasn't eager to embrace the comparison.
"Please," he said, pleading with the attendees who would be talking about the movie with their friends, "tell them it's not a ... sequel to 'Do The Right Thing.'"
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Red Hook Summer." Credit: Sundance Film Festival