If you’re a Spike Lee fan, the trailer for “Chi-Raq,” which arrives in theaters on December 4, is cause for celebration, or at least guarded optimism: A stylized hip-hop musical, based on an ancient Greek comedy, retuned to comment on urban violence hits many of the director’s sweet spots, and it certainly looks more solidly conceived than anything he’s done since 2009’s “Passing Strange.” But if you’re a resident of Chicago, particularly one concerned with the soaring murder rate that gave rise to the city’s unwanted nickname, it looks like it’s trivializing a serious issue — or at least, that’s the argument laid out by E.R. physician Amy Ho in the Chicago Tribune this week.
The movie, Ho says, “apparently has managed to trivialize the suffering of the men, women and children of Chicago’s West and South sides and our troops in the Middle East.” Taking up the notion from Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” of women withholding sex until their men cease killing each other “entrenches the assumption that women have no power other than their vaginas.” “The problem with ‘Chi-Raq,” she says, “is that it will skirt over the bigger issues of institutionalized violence. Men are not shooting guns in any correlation to how sexually satisfied they are. Men, their wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and daughters continue on in this cycle of violence because it is just that — a cycle with complexities entrenched in socioeconomic and political chains.”
It may well be that “Chi-Raq” “will skirt over the larger issues,” although given that “larger issues” are generally what gets Lee going, I’d bet money that it won’t. But Ho, and the many others who have rushed to condemn the movie, don’t know what they’re talking about, because they can’t, and they won’t admit it. Over the course of a few paragraphs, Ho’s editorial shifts from the awkward-but-accurate “apparently has managed” to speculative certainty: “entrenches”; “will skirt.” To put it in terms appropriate to an E.R. doctor, it’s like going into surgery without waiting for the test results to come back.
The bigger question is why the Tribune is running Ho’s piece in the first place. And the answer is right there in the URL, the part which reads “ct-perspec-chiraq-chicago-gangbangers-er-women-vaginas.” “Er, vaginas” indeed. The movie has been a subject of local controversy, and no small amount of political grandstanding, since the title was announced, running nearly 80 articles on the subject in the last six months. So it’s no surprise that, in the absence of an actual movie to scrutinize, the well has run dry. But the clamor, including a Huffington Post essay that proclaimed “We need truth — not a modern adaptation of the Greek comedy ‘Lysistrata,’ Spike Lee,” has been loud and persistent enough that Lee, a filmmaker who has thrived on and courted controversy, felt compelled to strike back, issuing a new trailer highlighting “Chi-Raq’s” serious moments, and explaining, “There’s a difference between humor and comedy.”
It is, frankly, pretty depressing that Spike Lee has to explain the nature of satire to his prospective audience — especially since, as Ashley Clark, the author of a new book on Lee’s “Bamboozled,” points out, Lee opened that 2000 movie by having a character defin the word “satire.” Evidently, it didn’t stick.
The opposition between “comedy” and “truth” is not only false but ignorant, not to mention artistically deadening. It’s hard to believe we live in a time when people have to be clued into the fact that a movie whose first trailer opens with Samuel L. Jackson addressing the camera in a suit the color of a ripe Clementine isn’t meant to be scrupulously realistic. Is Lee seriously suggesting that the solution to violence is a female “sex strike”? It’s speculation on my part, too, but I’m pretty confident the answer is “No.” As Lee says multiple times in his explanatory video, don’t get it twisted.