Spike Lee Brings Complex Tales to the Forefront with ‘Chi-Raq’

4 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s searing satire, is the director’s best film since 2002.

The Academy Award winning director of films like ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, ‘Jungle Fever’, ‘Do The Right Thing’ and the Peabody and Emmy Award winning documentary ‘When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts’ has a new cinematic masterpiece to his credit, ‘Chi-Raq,’ which hits theaters today. In this week’s new releases, Spike Lee tackles gun violence in Chicago with “Chi-Raq,” a film inspired by the Aristophanes play “Lysistrata” and starring Teyonah Parris, Samuel L.Spike Lee’s most recent movie, “Chi-Raq,” arrives in theaters today after months of critical speculation that it would do everything from derail the movement for criminal justice reform into the old black-on-black crime canard to trivialize the murder rates in Chicago, where the film is set. Despite the fact that the film has been mired in all sorts of preconceived misconceptions and controversy surrounding its subject matter — and title — it’s a project that Lee completed against many odds. In “James White,” a young man (Christopher Abbott) grapples with the fractured relationship he has with his mother (Cynthia Nixon). ★★★½ “Chi-Raq” (R) “It’s a satire stuffed into a musical tucked into a melodrama, fused together by Lee’s signature visual brio and Terence Blanchard’s elegant orchestral score.

The movie follows Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) — a woman so beautiful “She made both George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson want to kiss her,” in the words of Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson, is a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes centering on a woman who goes on a sex-strike in order to end the war. It’s a bit of a mess, but a bit of a masterpiece, too: Just when you think Lee has lost his grip on a movie that can’t decide what it is, he grabs you by the throat with the urgency, passion and instincts that have made him one of America’s great cinematic artists. ” – Ann Hornaday ★★★½ “James White” (R) “In many ways, ‘James White’ hews to a typical coming-of-age dramatic arc, thrusting its soft, somewhat callow hero into tests and quests that will temper his character in important and permanent ways. ” – Ann Hornaday ★★★ “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (R) “There’s more than a little of Janis Joplin in the character Bette Midler played in 1979’s ‘The Rose,’ but Hollywood has never managed to make a feature about the blues-rock singer. Jackson, narrating the film) — who launches a sex strike that eventually goes global, bringing about world peace, corporate commitments to full employment and an Emmett Till Trauma Center to the city’s South Side. “Chi-Raq” is, in other words, a patently bonkers movie.

Crafted in the signature style of Lee’s most beloved movies, ‘Chi-Raq’ is set in the treacherous environs of Chicago’s South Side, which has become the real life killing fields of America due in large part to gang warfare. Amy Berg’s ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’ suggests one reason: Although Joplin’s brief life was eventful, its contradictions would stymie a tidy biopic” – Mark Jenkins ★★½ “A Royal Night” (PG-13) “It’s hard to imagine, but Queen Elizabeth was a kid once, too — long before the pearls and the little handbags. During a time when police brutality is the subject of near-endless discussion, it begins as a meditation on black-on-black crime — a topic that’s recently become a much-vaunted right-wing talking point. (See: Donald Trump.) However, it also suggests the military is ruled by the Confederacy, and its most searing speech about the roots of the black struggle in America is delivered by John Cusack, a white man, never mind that he’s playing a riff on a real person. Filmed in Chicago earlier this year, Lee had his work cut out for him; early backlash ensued over the movie’s title, which is not just a play-on-words about the war-like murder statistics but also the name of one of the main characters. And, like a typical teenager might do, she convinced her skeptical parents that she was responsible enough for a night on the town with her little sister, Princess Margaret, to celebrate with the masses.

At a moment when art is often evaluated for its compliance with an existing political agenda, “Chi-Raq” is a perfect example of the much more interesting work culture can do, making us see existing issues differently by making suggestions or speaking in terms that are currently outside the acceptable bounds of political conversation. “Chi-Raq” is a movie about respectability politics where the most admirable people are black women who embrace their own sexuality and confront the powerful in decidedly aggressive terms and the villains include a fraternal order of middle-class black men. Embattled Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and his concern for the city’s public perception didn’t help matters either. “The mayor told me that the title ‘Chi-Raq’ was going to hurt tourism and economic development,” Lee told an audience of marketing executives and tastemakers at the Marriott Marquis in New York City in September. “He was only talking about one part of Chicago. Or at least that’s the premise of “A Royal Night Out,” a comedy of errors oh-so-loosely based on actual events.” – Stephanie Merry ★★★ “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” (Unrated) “Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland and structured mainly around audio recordings from 1978 and 1979 that were once thought to have been lost, ‘Peggy Guggenheim’ is a lively, refreshingly candid portrait of a woman variously described by biographers, historians and acquaintances as eccentric, narcissistic, the ‘poor Guggenheim’ and — by the film’s subject herself — as a kind of “midwife” to modernism.” – Michael O’Sullivan It’s a necessary corrective to the idea that a work of art is only as good as its politics, and it even doubles as an argument that a movie can be “stagey” and still be good.

And it’s a film where Lysistrata’s sex strike is so successful that the movie actually ends up as a despairing illustration of the persistent power of American apartheid. It’s the best movie Lee has made in ages, possibly since 2002’s 25th Hour (which is still the best post-9/11 movie), and it demands that you pay attention at all times, whether you agree with it or not.

Of the objections to the film, I think the fairest is that “Chi-Raq,” by virtue of its source material, participates in the traditions of argument that suggest women control access to sex and that black women are responsible for the moral uplift of their communities. Lee has always been one of cinema’s most theatrical directors, with a fondness for characters speaking directly to the camera and moving in overtly stagey ways. When my colleague Soraya McDonald and I pushed Lee on those points in a November interview, he was dismissive to the point of mockery of the feminist critique of these ideas. “Are you going to stand behind that feminist stance and say why should we women do it? It’s basically young black men killing young back men and these young brothers don’t see any hope so therefore they don’t care about their lives and if they don’t care about their lives they don’t care about anybody else’s lives.

People get killed by just being in the crowd.” Since 1983, the Brooklyn-bred auteur has used film as a forum to tackle controversial subject matter impacting African-Americans in contemporary settings. A young woman’s journey of her sexual liberation (‘She’s Gotta Have It’), the inner world of black fraternities and sororities (‘School Daze’), and the trials and tribulations of interracial romance (‘Jungle Fever’) are just some examples of the type of complex storytelling he’s done over the past three decades. And I said, ‘Do you have any black teamsters?’ and they said ‘No.’ Well I said ‘You know what, the Fruit of Islam will be driving the trucks and if you want to come down to the set and deal with the brothers, they wont just be selling bean pies to you.'” “And a week later, miraculously, they found some black teamsters,” Lee, 58, quipped. “So I think a lot of times that we as a people underestimate our power and when you’re in a position to give a qualified person a gig in an industry that’s not set up for them to be in, you gotta do that.

Part of what’s compelling about “Chi-Raq” is the way it treats the film’s male characters as they try to wrangle women back into the sexual posts they’ve forsworn and how foolish, vainglorious and nasty men end up seeming in the process. Rival gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) tries to shame his girlfriend Indigo (Michelle Mitchenor) by asking her “Why you so frigid?,” but she refuses to be shamed. Strip club owner Morris (Dave Chappelle) gets increasingly frantic when his employees stop showing up for work, telling his customers “I need some active-duty, first-class vagina.” Lysistrata dupes General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), who runs a South Side armory, by playing into his sexual fantasies of black women and asking him to treat her “Like you’re Stonewall Jackson come to rescue little old darky me from the Damn Yankees.” He obliges and channels Don Imus in the process; she blindfolds him with a Confederate flag and commandeers the facility, forcing a standoff between the sex strikers and the Chicago police. When Lysistrata refuses, Old Duke lashes out at her, calling her “You trifling little black b—-.” It’s the nastiest thing anyone says to Lysistrata at any point in the movie, and it comes from a black man who thinks of himself as a respectable leader in his community.

Luckily Amazon took a chance and ‘Chi-Raq’ is the e-commerce giant’s first foray into motion pictures to be released theatrically after enjoying success with streaming content online. But Lee keeps things moving by filming the movie largely in a presentational style, meaning the actors always keep at least one side of themselves turned toward the audience, as if they were performing on stage.

I’ve seen plenty of people wondering how “Chi-Raq” fits into a filmmaking career that includes “Do the Right Thing.” But while “Do the Right Thing” contains a deadly incident of police brutality, it’s not really a film about police violence. Instead, both films, along with Lee’s outstanding and underrated film about the Million Man March, “Get on the Bus,” are really about movements and communities and how they work out — or fail to resolve — the issues that divide them.

The sequence goes on and on, first showing a musical performance, then the sermon at the funeral, and it doesn’t give the audience an option to look away. The events of the hottest day of the summer are an uneasy exploration of whether the neighbors who rotate around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria still have the capacity to resolve their differences and live in some sort of accord, if not perfect harmony. And even though a church service is inherently theatrical (in that it has a “performer” who speaks directly to an audience), Lee utilizes as many film techniques as possible to make this moment work, from smash cuts to close-ups to oblique camera angles. Radio Raheem has an unpleasant dispute with the Korean couple (Steve Park and Ginny Yang) who run the convenience store where he buys the batteries for his ubiquitous boom box.

Mookie (Lee himself), Sal’s delivery man, grouses at both Sal and his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) about what he’s owed and his persistent lack of hustle. Let’s talk about it.” Lee builds his case gradually but devastatingly, until he’s implicated the United States’ lack of gun control laws, its lack of legislative care for historically black neighborhoods, and the legacy of white supremacy in the country for the death of this one little girl. Yes, the sequence (and the first half of the film) argues, it’s true that this girl might have died because of an altercation between black men, but the people who put guns in those men’s hands and the people who created the grueling system of poverty those men grew up in are just as much to blame. While the men on the titular bus have all made the decision to take the same journey, they have different reasons for joining the March, and over the course of their long drive, they must resolve some of those tensions. He’s also a police officer, which complicates his growing friendship with Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a Muslim convert who has tried to distance himself from serious crimes he committed while a member of a gang; at the end of the film, Gary tells Jamal he will have to arrest him when they return to Los Angeles.

Similarly, the film’s sets and costumes incorporate purple and orange to bring little bursts of color to almost every scene, until Lysistrata launches her plan and her army slowly dresses in monochromes, a new force clad in black and white, bringing their own kind of meaning to the universe. But while Miss Helen encourages Lysistrata to take a stand, she also warns the younger woman that “When they murder white children / And things don’t change / Black lives are way out of range.” Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, in a role modeled on the real-life Father Michael Pfleger, who pastors St.

Later, Jackson seems to arrive in a scene as if from nowhere and even apes the most famous moment from Patton, when the general in the title gives a major speech in front of a giant American flag. Sabina in Chicago) gives a powerful eulogy for Patti that lays out the moral reasoning of the film: that shootings like the one that murdered the little girl are the product of a political and economic system that aims to destroy African American communities, but that the perpetrators still bear moral responsibility for the triggers they pull. A goofy military plan to undo Lysistrata’s scheme involves slow jams bombarded upon the women holed up in a National Guard facility, and everything comes down to a climactic sex-off. It may be true that “Historically speaking, murder’s in that boy’s blood,” as Corridan says of Dylann Storm Roof, who allegedly killed nine people at Emanuel A.M.E.

Church in Charleston, S.C., and that “Patti’s gone because our politicians are in the pockets of the National Rifle Association or are its silent co-conspirators.” But these realities are not permission to be passive: Corridan and “Chi-Raq” argue, in a modern advancement of Greek ideas about fate, that individuals can and must struggle against any sense that their lives are predestined for them, whether by a father’s absence or generations of economic deprivation. “Give Lysistrata what she wants,” Chicago Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) snaps at his police commissioner, Blades (Lennix), as “Chi-Raq” reaches its conclusion. “She wants world peace,” Commissioner Blades tells him, skeptically. Chi-Raq is constantly dropping in information about the situation in Chicago, never letting the audience off the hook for not knowing about the murders happening there.

It’s as if Lee were reversing the old “spoonful of sugar” idea; a solid spoonful of outrage helps the rest of the movie’s fanciful and satirical medicines go down. One of them opens the film, with several minutes of lyrics from a rap song (one of a handful written specifically for the film), playing out in red text against a black screen.

This isn’t fodder for the think-piece industry (though, okay, it is also that); it’s a wounded fictional op-ed all its own, a cry for somebody, somewhere, to do something about everything that’s gone wrong.

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