Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ Tells Black Community to ‘Wake Up’

From the opening image of Spike Lee’s new movie Chi-Raq – a red, white, and blue map of the United States composed entirely of the silhouettes of a variety of guns – it is clear that the filmmaker intends to take on the volatile issue of blacks and gun violence in war-torn Chicago, nicknamed Chi-Raq by its black inhabitants after the Middle Eastern war zone. Lee has a habit of provoking racial controversy, and that is no less true of this darkly humorous satire (“not a comedy,” he insists) set in the murder capital of the United States. True to the director’s form, Chi-Raq provokes and dissatisfies those on both sides of the debate.
Spike Lee has attacked both white and black fellow filmmakers in the past for reasons related to race. As noted in his profile at the Freedom Center’s Discover the Networks resource site, Lee excoriated Tyler Perry for the stereotyped depictions of black characters in his hugely popular comedies, and Woody Allen for not featuring enough black characters in his movies set in Manhattan. From his perspective that racism is deeply entrenched in American culture, the enormously wealthy Lee has railed against such issues as interracial couples, Charlton Heston and the NRA, NASCAR, the war in Iraq, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the gentrification of New York. He suspects the government of having engineered the AIDS epidemic and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has supported Barack Obama and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. He has stated that blacks can’t be racist, because they don’t have the political power to impose racism.
But interestingly, Chi-Raq doesn’t take an entirely expected position about blacks and gun violence. Lee could have made a movie about a white cop shooting an unarmed black man, which is the supposed epidemic ravaging the black American community; instead, he made a film that lays the responsibility for the high rate of black deaths annually from gun violence largely on the black community itself. Unlike the Black Lives Matter movement, Lee is willing to face the harsh reality of young black males perpetrating violence against other blacks.
That message didn’t go over well with many blacks. The film’s trailer alone, featuring some comedic moments that some took as making light of the topic, was enough to cause a backlash against Lee. Grammy-award winning rapper Rhymefest even demanded that the director issue an apology to the city of Chicago.
The template for the movie’s style is classical Greek theater – more specifically, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which the titular heroine attempted to force an end to the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their men until those warriors lay down their arms. Lee’s protagonist is also named Lysistrata, and the script is even written mostly in verse and utilizes the ancient Greek technique of a chorus that provides background information and commentary – here in the form of a scene-stealing Samuel L. Jackson.
In Chi-Raq, Lysistrata is the girlfriend of up-and-coming rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq of the Spartan gang, which is waging a turf war against the Trojans (another nod to the story’s ancient Greek roots). After a black child dies in the street from a stray bullet fired by Chi-Raq, Lysistrata decides to do something about the perpetual violence. Inspired by video footage of the activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike in Liberia, Lysistrata decides to organize all the women from both gangs to dedicate themselves to “total abstinence from knockin’ the boots” until the men give up their guns and cease the endless killing.
“Everybody here got a man in the orange and purple colors, banging and slanging, fightin’ for the flag / riskin’ that long zip of the cadaver bag,” she implores the Trojan women.
“It’s how we live,” argues one.
“It’s how we die,” Lysistrata counters. “You wanna lose your man to a driveby?”
Uniting behind the slogan, “No peace, no pussy,” the women lock it up and leave their macho men high and dry. The community impact is immediate and dramatic: “Even the hoes are no-shows,” one man complains, and the local strip club owner laments that “This famine affects the lower regions, where all you young Trojans do most of your thinkin’.”
Noted lefty actor John Cusack plays Father Mike Corridan, a clear representation of real-life radical leftist Chicago priest Father Michael Pfleger, who is a longtime friend and supporter of Barrack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan. Cusack’s character delivers a fiery sermon to a packed African-American church mourning the death of another child, in which he pushes the predictable leftist line: children die because politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association; gun shows provide buyers a loophole to avoid gun control laws; crime will end when young blacks are guaranteed jobs (“and I don’t mean at minimum wage!”); Jesus was a social justice warrior (“He rolled with the poor”).
Meanwhile, in the film’s least bombastic and most effective plea for blacks to take charge of ending the culture of violence, a young gangbanger crippled for life by a bullet tells the stubborn Chi-Raq that the thug life is no life at all: “This ain’t livin’. This ain’t life. We gotta do somethin’ different, bro.”
Lysistrata’s movement quickly goes national, then international, as women from places as far-flung as India and Brazil get behind the “No peace, no pussy” commitment. Back home, her next step is to seize the Chicago Armory (under the command, bizarrely, of a caricatured, openly racist, Southern white general whose office is adorned with a huge Confederate flag). This prompts the riot police and even the Army to step in for a standoff. The police commissioner, a black man, argues with Lysistrata that thuggish behavior isn’t winning her side any sympathy. She finishes with a pro-Black Lives Matter speech and expresses contempt for “you and your Ben Carson sort.”
In “Spike Lee's Troublesome Chi-Raq Does Not Have the Answers,” a reviewer at the radical feminist site Jezebel called complains that the director muddied his message by incorporating “too many” points of view – by which she probably means anything other than the Black Lives Matter perspective. She resents that he puts “a large onus on black people to, in Lee’s words, ‘Wake up’ and search inward.” She’s frustrated that he said in an interview, “We cannot be out there [protesting] and then when it comes to young brothers killing themselves, then mum’s the word… You can’t ignore that we are killing ourselves, too.” Who exactly is ignoring it? the reviewer wonders.
Who is ignoring it? Too many young blacks. Chicago in 2016 is well on its way to setting a record pace for gun violence: in the first eleven days of the year, at least 120 victims have been either killed or wounded by gunfire, mostly from gang rivalries. Lee couldn’t have predicted that the timing of his movie (it opened in limited release in December) would be so tragically perfect.