Jennifer Hudson Speaks Out on Gun Violence: ‘This Is My Reality’

10 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Chi-Raq’ And A Hard Place: What Critics Are Saying About Spike Lee’s New Movie.

THE release on December 4th of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”, a musical about gang violence on Chicago’s South Side, comes at a poignant moment for the city.It’s a monstrous commonplace that guns are as American as apple pie, but that’s why a movie about guns, the agony of gun violence, and the crying need to control and renounce guns has to be a big, philosophical, wide-ranging film—a movie that feels as raucous and mighty and capacious and vigorous and ornery and moral and immoral and wild as the country itself.Spike Lee’s latest, Chi-Raq, is designed to provoke: women in Chicago’s south side go on a “sex strike” to curb gang violence, cribbing from Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ comic account of the Peloponnesian War.

It’s radically patriotic in its demand for American practice to live up to American principles, American realities to live up to American dreams, and American residents to take up the challenge of distinctively American virtues. Fans say it’s sexy, visually riveting, and “not nearly as tone deaf about sociopolitical issues as Lee can be.” We pulled together some of the more thoughtful takes to help you make sense of it all. The protagonists of the film are feuding members of rival black gangs on the South Side, idiotic policemen, racist military men and a moronic mayor with a short temper.

All that and more happened in the name of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old African-American shot to death last year by a white police officer who claimed the teenager threatened him with a knife. Aristophanes’ play is gleefully erotic—or riotously obscene—and so is “Chi-Raq”; “Lysistrata” is hectic and veers toward the ridiculous, and so does “Chi-Raq.” Lee’s audacity is as unbridled as his vision. In depicting grave subjects with comic artifice, Lee makes “Chi-Raq” this year’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”—a work of such freedom and fury that it runs the risk of moralizing misinterpretation. It is wrong morally, because it rests on the notion that women, as a class, are somehow responsible for the kind of socially engineered violence you find in cities like Chicago.

But it is also manifestly false. [Spike] Lee cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in his comments, asserting that she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for using a sex-strike to end violence in Liberia. He was right: on December 6th Mr Emanuel sacked the head of the Independent Police Review Authority, which had declared fatal police shootings “justified” in all but one of the 400 cases it had investigated since 2007.

The text is written in pugnacious, witty, and whimsical rhyming verse, which the cast performs with a lyrical vigor that doesn’t jingle or trot but flows with the mighty current of heightened, emblematic speech. “Chi-Raq” is hilarious but not exactly funny—not because the jokes fall flat or the humor is off-key, but because the point is to mock the stepwise reasoning and the workaday earnestness that takes in stride a deadly emergency that, in its enormity and apparent insolubility, is nonetheless almost too absurd to be believed. Far from mocking the subject or approaching it lightly, Lee takes on gun violence with a scathing seriousness that spares nobody—not the characters in the film and not its viewers. The sex strikes ‘had little or no practical effect,’ Gbowee has written. ‘But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.'” Over at the New York Times Magazine, writer Jason Harrington, who has spent a lot of time in black neighborhoods in Chicago, writes that Chi-Raq’s portrayal of gang violence is an outdated fantasy: Adapting a fifth-century-B.C. comedy to the streets of Chicago is bound to involve some artifice, and Lee is entitled to a degree of creative leeway.

But he also wants us to “wake up” — that’s the message burned into the film’s closing frame, just as in Lee films past — and seriously address the realities of gang-related violence in Chicago. Others worry that the film—called “Chi-Raq” because, according to the film, more Americans died in Chicago from 2001 to 2015 (7,356) than in the Iraq war (4,424)—shows their city in too violent a light. Here, he forces us to consider the grim and gory pleasures that have, in the past, led us into those very seats to watch movies in which the violence that “Chi-Raq” decries is the very source of entertainment.

And from lifelong set-claimers to the violence-interrupters who work with them, the most common criticism I hear when it comes to portrayals of black Chicago gangs is the way they are shoehorned into this outdated, color-coded, Crips versus Bloods narrative — exactly the misconception that Lee’s film helps perpetuate. Yet there is, it seems obvious, a difference both quantitative and qualitative in the African-American response to atrocities inflicted from within and those inflicted from without. Together, the song and the sermon, heard when no image is seen, are a gauntlet that Lee throws down to himself: What can popular art be in a time of crisis? Mr Lee takes the story into Chicago gangland, where Spartans, clad in purple and led by a rapper called Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), are at war with Trojans, wearing orange and led by Wesley Snipes, with a diamond-encrusted patch over one eye. After its release, Chicago Magazine’s Chicagoan of the Year Chance the Rapper had this to say, also calling the film “exploitative” and “goofy”: Of course, not all critics say Chi-Raq misses the mark.

How can art depict and respond to the crisis, reflect the monstrous societal forces that render many black lives unlivable or simply unlived, and yet be—as art—free, personal, intimate, and beautiful? Amazingly, Lee creates such a work of art, not by tamping down his style, suppressing his personal impulses, or subordinating his intuitions to principles, but by heightening and extending his style.

He renders it inseparable from the ideas that he offers and the ideals he exalts—and fuses those analyses with a fierce, tender, overwhelming emotional power. But one thing it is consistently: impassioned. “Chi-Raq” is an indictment of the forces that have allowed major urban areas to devolve into killing fields where the body count surpasses that of Middle East war zones.

With the burden of incommensurable pain that suffuses the movie from start to finish—a burden that the movie helps to bear with its own flamboyant fury—Lee has created a raucously joyful yet howlingly haunted jazz requiem for a ravaged city and a ravaged generation. In it, he criticizes pretty much everyone—the politicians in the pockets of the NRA who allow for loose gun control laws, the white suburban kids who admire and buy into “thug” culture (via music, movies, etc.) from afar, the crooked real estate people and the prison industry that shield the black community from the hope of having a future.

It identifies those forces as: the National Rifle Association, which contends that the problem with a nation of an estimated 310 million firearms is that we have too few guns; the politicians too gutless to stand up against the gun lobby; a black unemployment rate that is perpetually double the national average, and disinvestment in our cities even as we spend billions to rebuild those in Afghanistan and Iraq. To these culprits, the movie implicitly adds one more: what it sees as an African-American community that tacitly accepts urban murder as almost a natural disaster like an earthquake or heat wave, a thing one can only endure, but never change.

It’s frank, invigorating, emotional, sad—and it’s the film’s manifesto laid bare.” Reactions to Chi-Raq run the gamut, and for a film that takes on violence, race, sexuality, poverty, and governance, that’s hardly unexpected. The humour is clunky—the sexually aroused general, clad in Confederate-flag underpants, mounts a civil war cannon and is blindfolded and handcuffed by Lysistrata.

As in a scene wherein a distraught mother cries out to passersby to step forward, bear witness to the caught-in-the-crossfire killing of her daughter and receives in response only silence. In its first dramatic scene, Chi-Raq is performing onstage at a night club—rapping with bravado about his own gunmanship and readiness to shoot down his rivals—when a gunman from the rival gang, the Trojans (whose color is orange), tries to shoot him but strikes another member of the group. But in the spirit of satire, and out of respect for Spike Lee, Chi-Raq, readers of Code Switch, and the world, I would be remiss not to end this round-up with this gem from Creative Loafing’s Matt Brunson:

But the film is saved by its creative use of iambic pentameter and urban slang, rap and the introduction of Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus not in the original play, who pops up at regular intervals in brightly coloured suits to fill in the audience with context. “Police siren every day/People die every day/Mommas cry every day/Fathers tryin’ every day” goes Chi-Raq’s prologue. Police malfeasance will probably always monopolize our attention, precisely because it is police malfeasance; something we’ve too often seen go unpunished, unchecked and excused. But “Chi-Raq” argues that, for all the rage African-Americans bear for what others do to us, we need to also spare some indignation for what we are doing to ourselves.

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. The control that Lee imagines isn’t so much gun control as it is self-control. “Chi-Raq” is a vision of political change (about which the movie is amazingly specific) but, first, foremost, and from beginning to end, it’s about personal change—about giving up guns, and, for that matter, giving up much more. I’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that, in the very terms of the movie, the sex strike doesn’t actually “work”—it doesn’t, in itself, induce the men in the movie’s gangs to give up their weaponry. At a personal level, it takes pain—the experience of pain, the confrontation with pain, the contemplation of pain, the testimony of pain—and Lee dramatizes pain as a matter of overwhelming public spectacle and intimate anguish.

The public side emerges in the story of a seven-year-old girl named Patti who is gunned down in the street; her mother (Jennifer Hudson) expresses unspeakable grief with heartrending precision (exactly the grief that, with time, Miss Helen has given form and structure with thought and study). Sabina Church, is an artistic spectacle of music and dance, but, above all, it’s the spark for a vast political vision, by means of Father Mike’s sermon.

He preaches about the gun trade’s connection with the “underground economy” that emerges when blacks don’t get enough of a chance in the aboveground one, and the high unemployment and discriminatory banking policies that keep the community both poor and desperate. Lee doesn’t leave out lives lost to police violence (there’s a superb moment in which Dolemedes shows blacks caught between gangs and the police), because the very subject of his film is larger than the immediate problem of street shootings.

They do so with a vast range of emotions, from frantic comedy to righteous fury, that is constantly underpinned, as if by the deep pedal point of an organ, with a weary and bottomless mourning perched on the edge of tears. What it takes is a comprehensive vision of justice—one that’s rich in spiritual, even metaphysical overtones—which Lee realizes in ghostly visions of a Shakespearean power. There’s something authentically Greek, something primordially visionary and speculative, in Lee’s imaginative, profoundly sympathetic approach—and that, too, risks becoming a source of misunderstanding.

The flamboyant fury of the women led by Lysistrata, chanting and dancing and gyrating with a joyful exuberance, is energized by grief and righteousness. (Parris’s performance is both grand and precise, fervent and exquisite.) The movie’s flaming artifices get to some cold truths, beginning with the one-man chorus Dolemedes’s direct addresses to the audience. (Samuel L. The toxic combination of violence and sex that Chi-Raq himself, with his swagger, brings to his music, his gang, and his bed, is itself Lee’s target—but he finds it in white society, too, among revanchist racists as much as in liberals. The lilting, brightly-lit artifice of the language and the virtuosic vigor of the performances—the intellectual abstraction and theatrical emotion with which the complex story and the dire situation are rendered—is matched by a tight-grained, sharply perceptive and physically nuanced quasi-documentary focus on the characters’ gestures, inflections, glances, and disturbingly mixed or intensely focussed moods. He’s played—with a marked and moving intensity—by Wesley Snipes, a middle-aged actor who recently served two and a half years in prison (for tax evasion).

Lee brings this vision to life in a grand, extravagant, elegiac, ecstatically imaginative vision that proposes nothing less than a new social contract.

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