Summers of Spike: Feeling the Heat of the Lee Filmography

“I have today’s forecast for you: HOT!” — Mister Señor Love Daddy, Do the Right Thing

Arguably the greatest cinematic depiction of the summer heat, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing focuses so clearly on the impact that extreme hot weather can have on people that the elevated environment is practically a supporting character.

That sentiment is felt all the way down to the film’s promotional tagline: “It’s the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can…” well, you know. And in turn, much has (rightfully) been written about Lee’s onscreen handling of 1989’s most volatile hours in the Bedford-Stuyvesant “Bed-Stuy, Do-or-Die” section of Brooklyn.

But as a native New Yorker, Lee is well aware that those volatile 24 hours are far from the only hyperbolic stretch of raised temperatures to hit The Big Apple. Though his later attempts to depict the particularities of the season over longer periods of time have produced mixed results, Lee gets damn close to the steamy, madness-inducing highs of Do the Right Thing by revisiting the months when he was a rising junior at Morehouse College, home for summer break in Brooklyn.

One of the filmmaker’s most underrated efforts, Summer of Sam addresses the historic heat head-on in Jimmy Breslin’s introductory narration when the New York Daily News columnist reflects on the “hot, blistering summer of 1977” where the film takes place. Subsequent imagery of a boxer-clad Son of Sam, David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), mentally anguishing in his humid apartment before his  first kill sets a powerful scene for rough times yet to come, but the terror is soon counteracted by the joy that’s also inspired by such weather.

Vinny (John Leguizamo) driving with the windows down and his attractive wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) riding shotgun, looking like the envy of the neighborhood, provides the antithesis to such senseless violence as they arrive at their favorite local dance club and, in Lee’s and cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ brilliant one-take homage to the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, make their way to the floor like they own the damn place. Women in sexy, revealing clothes let loose to the disco sounds of Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights” while the guys sweat it out in style inside Travolta-approved suits, and everything feels like a summery paradise.

However, after a close call with Son of Sam’s second murders and scenes in which Vinny scratches his narcotics itch with help from dealer Joey T (Michael Rispoli) at a waterfront dead end — Message! — it’s clear how far from borough royalty our purported hero truly is. Though relief from the heat awaits at the swimming pool literally a block away, Joey T’s deadbeat associates have nothing better to do than stand around and theorize that the killer may be from the neighborhood and that Vinny, whom the murderer may or may not have seen, might be Son of Sam’s next victim.

The paranoia would be heavy enough without the drugs and heat, but this crew is clearly ready to explode. From their disgust at former neighbor Richie (Adrien Brody) returning from parts unknown with spiked hair, a feigned British accent, and a love for punk rock and The Who, and Joey T sideman Brian (Ken Garito) blowing up at a racist yuppie his half-sister Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) has been dating, they’re a collection of hot tempers, just waiting for the right circumstances to lose control and abandon whatever reason they possess.

That proverbial fuse is soon lit, largely thanks to the media. In a precursor to our current  24-hour news cycle and social media rumor mill, the characters of Summer of Sam have their fears stoked by evening news broadcasts and the daily paper, which compete to proclaim the killer’s newest activities — including reprinting his sickening letters to authorities — and the NYPD’s latest developments.

At the same time, residents are being peppered with reports about the record-breaking heat killing nearly as many people as Berkowitz, and combat their discomfort by sitting in front of multiple fans, plunging into ice baths, and — in the case of Dionna and Vinny — taking turns in a walk-in freezer at her father’s restaurant. None of these sweaty residents appear to have air conditioning, and with the addition of a city-wide blackout and its resultant looting that prompts Lee’s TV news reporter John Jeffries to flee the scene for fear of his safety, they’re especially vulnerable to fear-mongering and other mental lapses.

The widespread tension, seemingly tempered only by the Yankees’ baseball dominance, is frightening, but it’s in the isolated activities down by the dead end where the heat’s effects are most fully felt. Kuras’ overexposed cinematography during these exchanges, supplemented by extreme close-ups of sweaty faces, suggests that the sun is especially affecting these desperate men. 

Lee’s other depictions of hot weather and its ability to drive New Yorkers mad, however, have proven far less effective. Despite its matching seasonal title, Red Hook Summer could take place in late spring or early fall and few viewers would question the decision, as long as the title was changed to, say, Lil’ Peace of Heaven — after the church where Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) presides — or most anything else that doesn’t draw attention to the time of year. Indeed, the film’s title serves mainly to solidify its setting, one in which Atlanta teen Flik (Jules Brown) is sent for inexplicable reasons to live with his minister grandfather in the titular Brooklyn housing projects. 

Co-written by Lee and James McBride, Red Hook Summer features more talk about the weather being hot than its actual representation. Though Enoch preaches about the city’s record high temperatures from his pulpit, dabs off sweat while parishioners fan themselves, and finds sermonic inspiration from the heat — “Jesus will air condition your soul!” — no one seems all that bothered by the alleged oppressive weather.

Though the pair of ceiling fans in the Lil’ Peace of Heaven sanctuary spin like helicopters from Apocalypse Now, it takes Enoch being confronted by his nefarious past in the form of past transgression Blessing Rowe (Colman Domingo! Without facial hair!!) to get him perspiring heavily. While it’s unclear if the temperatures played a part in bringing the wronged now-adult to Red Hook to confront his trespasser, Lee employs his trademarked double dolly shot as Blessing makes his way up the aisle, amplifying the confrontation’s emotions and resulting in outright mayhem as Flik’s asthmatic friend Chazz (Toni Lysaith) collapses and the congregation attempts to prevent Blessing from reaching Enoch.

“Please tell them that this is not a motherfucking sequel to Do the Right Thing,” Lee told the audience at the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere. Indeed, despite the presence of Mookie (Lee) still delivering pizzas for Sal’s, Red Hook Summer has little in common with Lee’s most beloved feature besides the season, this one character, and its proximity of locations.

While not Lee’s worst film — that would be his other McBride collaboration, the bloated, lifeless WWII effort Miracle at St. Anna — it shows that Lee’s summer films suffer when they shy away from the nitty-gritty aspects of the heat. Such reticence is likewise present in Crooklyn, which arrived a mere five years after Do the Right Thing and is likewise set in Bed-Stuy, yet lacks its predecessor’s dedication to presenting extreme weather. 

Like Red Hook Summer, its characters appear largely unaffected by any temperature-related challenges the season may bring, yet distances itself from the lesser Lee film by being grounded in its depiction of neighborhood youth behavior in 1973. Best exemplified by an opening credits montage that features a range of imaginative, pre-screen outdoor entertainment, Lee sprinkles other relatable childhood activities into later scenes, encouraging a nostalgic connection to the material.

Though they have their scattered charms, Crooklyn and Red Hook Summer are ultimately minor works in Lee’s filmography, while the detailed portrayals of the heat’s pull on people in Summer of Sam and Do the Right Thing are key parts of why they’re  among his best — if not his greatest hit, as many consider the latter to be. 

When it comes to Lee and summer, honesty once more proves to be the best policy — and that’s the truth, Ruth.

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