It's roughly 25 years later in Spike Lee's fictional/factional Brooklyn, the location of She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, and Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), Gotta's forthrightly sexual heroine, is now Mother Darling, a benign Jehovah's Witness handing out copies of Watchtower on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, Thing's Mookie (Lee) continues delivering pizza. The heatwave is still on, the sweltering powder keg of 1989 has become the strangely re-mixed gentrification project of 2012, and the film isn't a sequel to either of their stories.
Instead, it's about Flik (Jules Brown), a 13-year-old suburban Atlanta kid with an iPad 2 and a mohawk whose antagonistic new friend Chazz (Toni Lysaith) almost immediately accuses him of "talking white." Flik's mother has shipped him off for the summer to live with his estranged minister grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), a man who never stops preaching the gospel, regardless of the subject actually being discussed.
Flik and Chazz spend their days hanging out, ruining wet cement, pointing the iPad camera at everything they can and running afoul of local gangs when they're supposed to be cleaning up the church basement for an upcoming "Old Timer's Day." But the church congregation numbers about two dozen people, the basement never gets clean and aside from Mookie and Mother, those old timers aren't really coming back. Flik's stated intention is to make a documentary about the Red Hook section of the borough, but he's mostly using the camera as a way to make personal sense of his own disorientation. Meanwhile, "Da Good Bishop," as he's known in the credits, is more than a little bit like Robert Duvall in The Apostle, a man fixated on Jesus but living with serious internal demons.
It's a return to early form for Lee. Unlike his recent, big-budget heist movie Inside Man, it's extremely personal, the kind of film that looks like it was made for 35 well-considered and artful cents. It's also a return to form in voice. This is a guy who never met a tangent, rant or aside he didn't want to stop and motormouth-shout through one of his characters. And in a moment when the most successful African American director in the country works primarily in slapstick comedy and earnest Christian melodrama, Lee's sense of urgency about the rest of everything else means that even if he's not going to make an entire film about the failure of 911 calls, ethereal prayer versus tangible parenting skills, the elevated levels of asthma among children living in poverty, friendly white lesbian kayaking instructors as neighbors or the real-world failures of the Church, he's going to weave strands of all of those concerns into the lumpy fabric of his messy narratives. If he didn't he wouldn't be Spike Lee.
So if some of his novice actors sound rough around the edges and if major characters disappear for long stretches and if atmospheric montage stands in for a way to wrap it all up (his camera lingers over mournful, all-caps graffiti art that reads "ONE DAY WE WILL PART") then so be it. Lee pushes through that stuff, claiming the victory over predictable product-based entertainment, throwing you curve balls of tone and cannonballs of heartfelt grief. It's scattershot and strange but detailed and intimate, clunky (until he puts an actor on that rolling track he loves so much) and unhappy but tender and generous. And it's his most moving film since Crooklyn. More 35 cent cinema, please.