Eight thoughts on Chi-Raq, which I’ve just rewatched after missing it at the theater. I have to say, it was a completely and totally different film than I’d been led to expect by blogs, reviews, and the normal blowup that comes with a Spike Lee joint.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Chi-Raq is Lee’s best film – nor does it aspire to be, really. It feels forced at points, almost an experiment, with metered dialogue and at times scenes that seem rushed. For me, the comedy/satire of the sex strike seemed too mismatched with the other part of the film, which deployed memory and mourning to such profound effect that I felt physically uncomfortable for hours after. Just the scenes of men and women holding up pictures of loved ones lost to gun violence was enough. Perhaps because that part moved me so much, the metered speech and satirical play of the sex strike seemed off, like I couldn’t switch mood so quickly.
So, eight thoughts …
1. So much of the concerned criticism about the film – and the featured part of the trailers – revolved around the rewrite of Lysistrata, the politics and ethics of it, including (and this seems odd to me even still) whether or not that was Lee’s prescription (I don’t see any of that part in the film). But that motif, which admittedly takes up a good chunk of time in the film, seems to be to be played for comic and/or satirical relief from the real film, which is an avalanche of despair and rage about gun violence. My own take, as I said above, is that there’s a mismatch here that doesn’t work as release or relief. That aside, though, the whole Lysistrata thing is so much less than the issue of violence, loss, and mourning, in terms of narrative and moral weight.
2. Women in the film are not in fact reduced to sexual objects who then become sexual agents. I’d expected that narrative based on most stuff I read. In fact, their appearance in such a role, which is crass and unsophisticated and completely without interest in nuance, and the focus of that in so much criticism, seemed to me to disappear the role of women in the serious part of the film, namely women as carriers of memory, those who bear the entire burden of loss, and those who mourn. Interestingly, I think that’s part of the film’s own story, that older women and younger women left behind are invisible to the vibrant, violent life of the neighborhood – though, they are (literally) front and center in the church, an odd turn along with Red Hook Summer in Lee’s films, which had early on been so non-religious, even insistently so.
3. Because I read criticism before watching films (for better or worse), I was anticipating a one-dimensional vision of combatting gun violence – that a sex strike was somehow Lee’s idea for liberation. But the film, to the point of being boringly didactic at times (though always right), is just so explicit about what really makes these problems better (jobs, healthcare) and what makes them worse (the NRA, the police as a form of violence not protection). That’s the serious part of the film. The comedic and satirical parts, though related to the deeper themes of masculinity (men’s identity turns on sexual relations – exploitative or not – with women…the women are not in existential crisis over the strike, and in fact seem to grow because of it) and institutional indifference (no office or political figure has any interest in helping black people, not even the black people in power), is really more of a release valve that tells one story on the back of another that comes, time and again, around to questions of poverty, police brutality, political corruption, and lack of basic human care in the form of hospitals, job programs, and the like. (He gets innovative for a short minute, though, with the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission for communities beleaguered by gun violence.) Lee’s political voice here is interesting, but neither innovative nor surprising. Still, it has to be said. It’s sad that this stuff has to be told over and over, but ain’t that America, right?
4. There is an important thematic of slavery in Chi-Raq. I’m thinking here, first, of the opening credits of and end scene from Get on the Bus, which tracks the imagery of slavery (shackles on wrists) to the police state (handcuffs and chains). Lee was saying something very serious there: something about black masculinity still enslaves black men (what it is gets explored in the body of the film, of course, and is largely evocative and nothing like a list). Chi-Raq has two moments like that. First, when Lysistrata meets with Angela Bassett’s character Miss Helen (an intriguing character whose meaning needs its own treatment), Miss Helen is reading a book about Sojourner Truth. Clear message: women have to lead out of slavery, whatever that means in this case. As well, before Teyonah Parris’s character Lysistrata and her comrades take over the armory, they evoke John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. What’s up with this slavery redo, in both films, but especially in relation to gun violence? I think that has something to do with the intergenerational traumatic effect of gun and gang violence. (More on that below)
5. The film really isn’t about Chicago at all. The title, of course, says the opposite, but the film itself is Chicago only really in the moment of shocking numbers at the beginning (more gun deaths than U.S. soldier deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, in the same period) and the figure of Father Mike. Otherwise, the film is pretty much about gun violence as such. That “as such” is named and repeated in the various news clips showing sex strikers across the world, the point being, hey, this idea that men and guns ruin the world is a global problem. Even the film’s title is only partly evoking Chicago: the main character is named Chi-Raq. If the film is in part a biography of him, then it becomes even less about Chicago. Like most Lee films, it is a film about a very small place (a pair of neighborhoods, mostly) that tells a story that is very big, very historical, and a deep mixture of morality and politics. “What is the meaning of life?,” Lysistrata is asked, to which she replies with an angry smirk “You don’t even know, do you?”
6. The scene in which Jennifer Hudson’s character Irene scrubs blood off the sidewalk is one of the most unwatchable scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema. It is so incredibly painful and raw and real. How that scene is not the focus of most commentary is surprising, shocking really, because it is really the moral and political core of the film. If women are carriers of memory and mourning, then this is what it looks like. We’re not talking about metaphors and motifs. We’re talking about a child’s blood and who scrubs it off the sidewalk. It’s an incredible materialism of memory of mourning, one of Lee’s very best moments as a filmmaker, if you ask me. Hands, brush, water, soap, blood, pavement – this is remembering and the first act of mourning.
7. The film begins to explore, but never quite follows through with, the idea of an emerging trans-generational trauma that comes from disasterous gun violence. This is most obvious when Lee let’s Nick Cannon’s character Chi-Raq have a moment in front of an RIP mural dedicated to his father, a scene that I thought wasn’t the most successful (it was a vulnerability out of nowhere), but nevertheless one that marks a generational moment: this is repetition, not a fall from a better place. Miss Helen, Angela Bassett’s character, is that trans-generational person for the women in the film and her story only starts to be told. I think the partial telling is the point, that we’re at an interval or crossroads and no one can know what meaning it will take on if the violence remains the same.
8. Lastly, there is a fascinating moment when the women take the armory and Dolmedes turns to the camera and says it simply: these people, mostly the women, are caught between the gangs who don’t care and kill and the police who don’t care and kill. It’s actually a stunning moment of commentary. While the film is mostly focused on gun violence and its catastrophic effect on black communities in Chicago – and by extension all over the world – there is also the trap of anti-black racism: the police do the same thing and do not protect. This leaves vulnerable people caught between two forms of violence, one from within the community, the other from without. I’m shocked this didn’t get more attention and, frankly, panicked criticism from fraternal orders, because it is sharp and serious equivocation: there are gangs and there are other gangs. And everyone in these communities live in terror and die because of them.