Spike Lee, ‘Chi-Raq’ Aims to Wake Up the Hood to Help Save Lives [EUR Exclusive]

4 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Review: Chi-Raq.

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. From School Daze, to Do the Right Thing, to Jungle Fever, to Bamboozled, Spike was known for having his pulse on what’s happening in communities across America and he used his films to show the world. 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, 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. 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. Lysistrata enlist the women in the community to join her sex strike and help bring an end to the violent gang war between The Spartans and The Trojans. It’s a movie that relies on old tropes about the moral superiority of women, but one that interrogates all the ways men try to regulate female behavior.

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. 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. 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? In the black community, it’s all hands on deck.” But Lee’s movie actually resolves the idea that we need to prioritize either black life or feminist goals better than Lee himself does in conversation. 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.

The starkest of these interactions comes when Old Duke (Steve Harris), the leader of the Knights of Euphrates, a fraternal organization whose members have been confounded by the strike (including a few who feel deprived by the fact that gay men have been taking Lysistrata’s pledge). 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. 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 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.

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.

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. How this film props itself up to be an uplifting film about what women can do to change things, but can’t help but treat them like vaginas with legs. 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. 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.

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. Seriously, if I didn’t know anything about what was happening in Chicago and I watched Chi-Raq, I wouldn’t learn anything other than black people kill each other , they like to have sex, and it’s ok to treat black women like dirt.

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