“Red Hook Summer,” Spike Lee’s polarizing coming-of-age movie that prompted fierce debate at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is headed to theaters.
Executives at the boutique distributor Variance Films have reached an agreement with Lee to release the film theatrically beginning this August. The director financed the movie independently and shot it in secrecy on Brooklyn streets over a period of 19 days last year.
In an interview, Variance President Dylan Marchetti told 24 Frames that the movie will aim to play in as many as 30 markets, “and not just one theater in each market.” Variance is a small New York-based distributor that has previously released the Michael C. Hall and Brie Larson indie "The Trouble With Bliss" and the Chinese action pic "Let the Bullets Fly."
“Summer” centers on a boy who arrives in a Brooklyn housing project to live with his preacher grandfather. For about two-thirds of its running time, it’s a gritty and music-heavy street drama about an assortment of neighborhood characters, with the occasional reference to Lee’s seminal “Do the Right Thing.” But the film in its last section takes a turn to the shocking, as a main character is revealed to have committed a heinous act that involves sex and Bible scripture.
The shift elicited arguments that ping-ponged around the theaters and restaurants of Sundance after the film premiered. (The initial screening was made even more controversial when Lee took to the stage and engaged in an outburst in which he said that he made the movie independently because Hollywood studios “know nothing about black people.”)
Asked if any of the controversial moments of the film have been changed, Marchetti said he couldn’t comment and referred all requests to Lee. The filmmaker was traveling and not available for comment. [Update, 5:12 p.m.: Marchetti followed in an email to say that the movie has "been tightened up a bit since the Sundance showing, but no key scenes have been removed. It's still as powerful and controversial as what you saw at Sundance, if not more so."]
The author James McBride, who wrote “Red Hook Summer” with Lee, had previously told Lee he didn’t believe the provocative scene involving the Bible and the sex act should have been included in this way.
Lee, however, remained defiant. “It was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever done,” he told 24 Frames at the festival. “But I knew it had to be done. It would have been cowardly and gutless and punkish to not deal with it straight on.”
The announcement continues a spate of deals for Sundance movies that has continued long after the festival ended.
More than 40 movies that played the Park City, Utah, gathering have come out or will come out in theaters. Even in the last month, several films, including Jonathan Kasdan’s youth romance “The First Time” and the teen documentary “China Heavyweight” received deals, from Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and Zeitgeist Films, respectively.
It remains to be seen, though, how many of the Sundance deals will bear box-office fruit; a number of them come from small distributors and will get only token releases.
Marchetti said he had yet to settle on all the details for the release for “Summer,” and also was undecided on whether to submit the movie for a rating with the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “We don’t need to do it, so I’m not sure that we would,” he said. “But even if we didn’t, we’d make sure to warn people in some way about the adult content.”
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Red Hook Summer." Credit: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.