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Finding Absurdity and Excellence in Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-raq’

Finding Absurdity and Excellence in Spike Lee's 'Chi-raq'

There were a few reasons I fully expected to be disappointed by “Chi-raq.” For one, I’d seen the trailer. For another, “Red Hook Summer.” And for a third reason, this horrifying quote from Spike Lee about how a sex strike could effect on-campus rapes, as if 1.) women are the ones who should be tasked with stopping on-campus rapes and 2.) rape is more connected to acts of sex, than acts of power, dominance or violence. Equally disturbing was this song that was allegedly going to be featured in the film.

Luckily, that song does not appear in its entirety—specifically, those troubling lyrics that seem to speak out against Black Lives Matter activists, nor does Spike Lee’s quote about the correlation between sex strikes and rape. So, regardless of how I now feel about some of Spike Lee’s politics, I can safely say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Chi-raq,” in the same way that I have many of his other films. His audacity as a filmmaker and storyteller (an audacity that has been rightly classified by others as pure insanity) does not pay off in every project, but it’s my personal opinion that it worked with “Chi-raq,” and I wonder how much of the still-ongoing backlash must be attributed to the initial public reaction to the film, a good deal of which occurred before it even premiered.

Many people from Chicago—including people I know personally—spoke out against it. “This isn’t our Chicago,” or “Spike Lee needs to stay his ass in Brooklyn,” were cries that resounded everywhere. Hood Feminism published this take down, which had me plenty concerned: “It isn’t entirely awful. It is a clumsy attempt by an obnoxious outsider to make sense of something we have struggled to understand for years. But it is not earnest. It is not heartfelt. It is hamfisted. It is exploitive. Most of all, it is dishonest.”And before she’d even seen the film, another writer dismissed Lee’s attempts altogether, with a powerful response to the trailer: You turned our children’s funerals into a Blaxploitation Greek slam poem chopped with a little Kanye West muted color music.”These reactions did not fall on deaf ears, my own included. And they makes perfect sense, as we were all expecting a film that was, in some way or another, “about” Chicago. But I don’t think this is what “Chi-raq,” is really about. Whether it was intended to be such a thing is another question, but Lee’s intentions and our resulting expectations are not, in the end, the film itself. “Chi-raq” is not a film about the people of Chicago in the same way that “Crooklyn” is about the people of Brooklyn, or “School Daze” is about people who attend HBCUs. This becomes abundantly clear as soon as those first couplets hit. “Chi-raq” is a satire, and the rhyming meters highlight the inherent absurdity of the whole thing. I was just as surprised as anyone else that I found this absurdity to be entertaining, but I thought it worked to negate the many problems I’d anticipated having with the story. “Understanding Spike Lee’s Chiraq as Art” highlights this complication as well: The film’s dialogue rhymes throughout. This unnatural feature helps the audience to never forget this isn’t reality. There is a scene at the beginning of the film in which the entire crowd dances choreographed and in sync at a hip-hop concert. This is also a blatantly unrealistic happening that acts as a splinter in the mind of the audience. These faux elements of the film contribute to a feeling of awkwardly placed emotions while watching Chi-Raq. Because Lee decided to couch this film in satire, there are those that reject the film entirely.”Indeed, many members of the viewing audience wanted a completely serious treatment of a serious topic. “Chi-raq” does not deliver that. This is not another version of Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” New Orleans-based documentary. But if Lee had wanted to make such a film, we know that he certainly could have. He chose otherwise.

“The first words of dialogue in Bamboozled are by Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans, and he looks to the camera, looks to the audience, and tells them the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word ‘satire.’ I thought I would never had to do that again, but I was fucking wrong.”—Spike Lee, Paste Magazine

The trailer also suggested that so much of the film would center on some notion about the power heterosexual women in heterosexual relationships hold between their legs. Luckily, the film makes it all too clear that this is somewhat ridiculous (even if Lee himself might have missed his film’s own problematizing of this concept). It does so in a few ways. On a small, but hilarious scale, it draws attention to its own heteronormativity by casting Felicia “Snoop” Pearson as one of the women engaged in the sex strike. Yes. They put Bmore Snoop from “The Wire”—and from my favorite and probably the most pro-gay Instagram account ever—in pigtails, and suggested that she was a straight woman abstaining from straight sex. If this doesn’t scream “SATIRE,” I don’t know what does. (I could say the same about many other characters in the story, like Snipes’ hilarious Cyclops and of course the Knights of Euphrates group, particularly a character called Oedipus.)

There’s also a great line from an actual gay character who happily notes that the sex strike does not apply to her:

“A hoe strike?
Shit, yeah. Good thing I’m a dyke.”

Of course, it could be argued that none of this takes away from the major plot, wherein a sex strike and the impact it has on the men of a community is utilized as a political tool. Even so, I’m not convinced that the message of “Chi-raq” is that, if straight women denied straight men sex, the world’s ills—particularly those of Black americans—could be resolved. Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata must confront the reality of the shortcomings of her plan throughout the film. In fact, what really gets the attention of the people in power—those she really needs to exact change in the system—is when she and the women occupy the city’s Armory.

So in spite of all the sex talk (and the many, many jokes centered on the male, heterosexual experience), “Chi-raq” complicates its own heteronormativity. As Richard Brody wrote, “the movie isn’t about guns; it’s about masculinity and manhood, and the need to break the pathological cycle of self-identifying virility and violence.” This becomes especially clear when Nick Cannon’s character is revealed to have been molested as a child. Of course, he doesn’t call it molestation. His is an all-too-common story of a young, black boy believing he lost his virginity at a young age, when really he was far too young to give consent to an older woman, or to the man who orchestrated the event. But because Chiraq shares this story when he’s talking about another sexual trauma he experienced, we know that it’s an important piece to his troubled mind—to his desire to appear, at all times, in control.

The other fear that I had—that the movie was going to problematize the fight against police brutality and send some ridiculous “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and stop the violence” message—was also alleviated upon actually seeing “Chi-raq.” I firmly believe that, even with all the satire and long dick jokes (really, a staple of his films), the message is for black Americans to—in addition to fighting against systemic racism—take care of their own, or at least be aware of when they are not doing so. Systemic racism and police brutality are not ignored, but incorporated into the greater story, as they should be:

“All this for some unarmed women of color?
They say they come to protect and serve,
but the real truth is they get the chance,
they’ll treat these girls like Eric Garner sellin’ loosies.”

This is also a style of political and socially-concerned storytelling that Lee has been practicing since the beginning. “Good and Bad Hair” is a song about how we organize hierarchies among women in the black community; it doesn’t absolve the white people responsible for the beginnings of such hierarchies, but it also doesn’t shrug off and refuse to address it as an issue that’s specific and damaging to blacks—an issue that we have some control over today. Obviously, these are two different issues, but the message is similar. We know that violence in black communities, which isn’t exacted by white police officers, can still be traced directly to racism and racist institutions that created environments where people are all but forced to behave like crabs in a barrel—“pulling down niggas who look just like you,” as Jay Z says. “Chi-raq” is concerned with what some of the characters call “self-extermination,” but it manages to present itself as a conversation with the black community that isn’t dripping with respectability. Quite the contrary, in fact. One of my personal favorite moments somes towards the end of the film, when the Commissioner (Harry Lennix) ask Chiraq the following: “Any chance you could pull up your pants?” Chiraq casually pushes his pants down lower. It’s an excellent response that speaks volumes.

I didn’t like everything about Chi-raq. It’s flawed. It can be a bit much. But there’s not one Spike Lee joint that I wouldn’t say that about, save for, perhaps “Malcolm X.” But this one has to go down in my own personal history book for, if nothing else, introducing me to two fascinating real-life people I might have otherwise never heard about: Rev. Michael Pfleger (who we meet via John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan) and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. I followed the instructions of Angela Bassett’s character and googled her, to my own delight. Not only did I learn about her important work, but I came across a sentence that put Spike Lee’s entire film into perfect perspective.

“Of the strike, Gbowee says, ‘The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.’”On and off for a few months? If you can’t find the humor in this line—in this brilliant, powerful women acknowledging that she and the other women who attempted a sex strike, sometimes caved in to their baser desires (because, in the end, it wasn’t the sex strike that was going to help them succeed anyway, and because they also probably just wanted to have sex), there’s a good chance that the humor of “Chi-raq” was lost on you. Or perhaps, you just didn’t like the damn movie.

But as a fan of films with strong performances, foul-mouthed humor and lots of “stuff” to unpack, I fell in love. Whether or not it was because of my expectations going into it, or because I believe that the world must bow down to Teyonah Parris, or because I spent my last year of undergrad discovering Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare, after years of studying black literature and theory, or because of my own appreciation for endless, immature dick jokes, remains unclear. But for the first time in a long time, I can honestly say that I am incredibly excited about the next Spike Lee joint. As much as we desperately need to hear the many other voices of black filmmakers—and we certainly do—we still need Lee’s uniquely powerful, divisive and, yes, sometimes insane perspective.

***

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter:https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.

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