It’s a pleasure to see some familiar faces in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, even if it’s disappointing that a couple of the actors are underused. The movie is anchored by a fierce performance by Wire veteran Clarke Peters as Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, a preacher whose affable demeanor in public masks a stern self-righteousness. Behind closed doors he’s always ready to pass unsmiling judgment on the kids who won’t listen to him, the evils of godless pop culture, and the ills of the gentrification creeping around the housing project he lives in. At times it’s as if for Enoch, simply being awake means to be engaged in one long harangue.
But during his religious services, this late–middle-aged curmudgeon is transformed into another figure entirely, a robust, charismatic man of the cloth, who beams as he leads his humble following in ecstatic worship. He leads the gospel sing-alongs with such visible exertion that in another context you’d swear he was trying to earn the mantle of Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
And yet, as befits a man keeping secrets (as we come to learn), there’s still another side to the Bishop, almost a secret identity: by day he humbly dons a city uniform and maintains the boilers in various Brooklyn housing projects. He doesn’t talk about it much. Stripped of his priestly robes he looks physically shrunken, anonymous.
If you think back to Peters’ breakthrough role as Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire (which came when Peters was 50, in 2002), it’s impressive to note how the part of Lester didn’t typecast him. Lester was shrewd, reserved and nobody’s fool; he was also slyly funny and courtly, with a hint of the silver fox about him. Years of being relegated to basement offices by the Baltimore police higher-ups could not rub out the debonair streak of his personality. Lester was smooth, in other words.
In contrast, both the Bishop Enoch Rouse and Albert Lambreaux, Peters’ character on Treme, are defined by their severity. Both are dry, stony men waging a kind of war against the world around them, not smooth but hard. Proud, stubborn Albert is an Indian chieftain soldiering on in post-Katrina New Orleans. He carries hundreds of years of tradition on his shoulders and is resentfully aware that those traditions may not be much honored in the future. The character is remarkably uningratiating and a little didactic, hard for viewers to warm up to at first, and Peters never asks for the viewer’s sympathy. The tagline that HBO devised for the show, “Won’t bow/Don’t know how,” could serve as Albert’s credo.
With both Albert and Bishop Enoch, their rigid private selves find their flip side in triumphant, flamboyant public performances. Bishop Enoch belts out his sweat-soaked gospel numbers; during parades Albert leads a troupe of fellow Indian dancers while wearing a stunning hand-sewn costume that makes him look like a beautiful prehistoric bird, and nothing at all like a man pushing 60.
Both Spike Lee and the writer-producers of Treme, David Simon and Eric Overmyer, are drawing on Peters’ decades of experience as a song-and-dance man for these performances: Peters was once nominated for an Olivier Award for his turn as lawyer Billy Peters in a London production of Chicago (the part that Richard Gere played in the movie), and among other credits he sang backing vocals on the old disco hit “Boogie Nights” (!) by Heatwave. If anything, Spike Lee might be a little too indulgent during the gospel numbers in Red Hook Summer, but Peters’ vocal performances as Bishop Rouse are so rousing that it’s understandable if the director was reluctant to cut just for the sake of speeding up the narrative flow.
Two other actors from The Wire turn up in Red Hook Summer, albeit in roles that are like glorified cameos. Early on there’s James Ransone as a youth-camp volunteer, one of the few white faces we see in the housing project where the movie mostly takes place. Ransone may still be best known for playing Ziggy Sobotka, the punk-ass dockworker, failed criminal and all-around fuckup in the second season of The Wire, but for my money his standout work came as Cpl. Josh Ray Person in Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns’ too-little-seen 2008 miniseries about the first month of the war in Iraq. As Person, part of a four-man APC crew, Ransone delivers a stream of deliriously profane, sexually frustrated commentary. The perfect counterpoint to Alexander Sarsgard’s towering, stolid Sgt. Colbert, jerky, whiny Person is exasperating and often side-splittingly funny, sometimes simultaneously.
Ransone turns up occasionally on Treme as a gay prep cook; he’s funny and likable enough in the part that I wondered why he doesn’t turn up on screens more often. In Dito Montiel’s The Son of No One (2011), he had a supporting role as the crooked partner to Channing Tatum’s brooding cop, and was so loose on screen that he might have been the only actor to emerge from the debacle of that movie unscathed.
Lastly there’s Isiah Whitlock Jr., who turns up late in Red Hook Summer as a world-weary police detective. Whitlock Jr. is best known for playing State Senator Clay Davis in The Wire; it’s too bad he doesn’t have more to do in the film, but it’s funny to see that even Spike Lee can’t resist having Whitlock Jr. reprise Clay Davis’ trademark “Sheeeeee-iiiiiiit” line.