Spike Lee ends his newest joint, Chi-Raq, with a throwback to his iconic end to School Daze.
But my question is what the hell are we waking up to? This week I went to Oakland’s Grand Lake theatre to watch Chi-Raq. It was a full house on a Tuesday night and I couldn’t figure out if it was because people were so excited to see it or the fact that Grand Lake is the only East Bay theatre screening the movie. It may have been because Tuesdays are $5 day and that’s all people wanted to spend on this movie. I suspect it was the later and after watching it we were are justified to do so.
Let me first say that I am a HUGE Spike Lee fan. There has never been a Spike Lee joint that came without controversy. Spike has always handled the controversy in a very Spike-manner which includes using the spotlight to highlight the issues the movie is meant to cover. He also handled it by delivering kickass movies that did most of the work for him. They may have made you think too hard. They may have used too many moveable parts. They may have included issues that you wished he hadn’t touched. However, you always came out of Spike Lee with SOME sort of idea of where he was going and what he was trying to say. You can’t fight the impact of Radio Raheem’s death in Do the Right Thing or conflicts that arose in Jungle Fever. When Lawrence Fishbourn told everybody to WAKE UP in School Daze you understood that he wanted you to wake up from the dream of black respectability and what it meant to be good black people. At least I did.
Despite the year-long controversy over Chi-Raq, I went into the theatre extremely hopeful that I would be able to point my finger at the negative reviews and say you don’t know what you are talking about. As I told a friend on FaceBook, I always get where Spike is going. He takes the long way around but I get him. So many of his films have foreshadowed things we are finally having to face in the black community. Not only does Radio Raheem’s death almost exactly mirror that of Eric Garner but his film Bamboozled foreshadowed how reality tv would be shaped by the ability perpetuate negative images of black people by teaching them to like it. Many didn’t get that when the film came out but I did and I’m shocked everyday as I watch it play out in real life.
I guess that as I waxed poetic on Spike many triumphs I was conveniently ignoring his flops and failures. Movies like Girl 6 which was a terrible take on black people and their relationship with kink and alternative lifestyles. Or maybe it was a terrible turn at sex workers. I still can’t call it. I can say how stupid that ending was with phones falling out of the sky. Like what was that? Or how about She Hate Me where Spike took on black lesbians by taking every single lesbian stereotype you can think of and rolling it up into one movie. Then there was Red Hook Summer. If all he wanted to do was revisit old characters in Bed-Stuy there were lots of ways, he could have done that without the bad acting and terrible screenplay.
So back to me sitting in Grand Lake theatre watching Chi-Raq. Spike actually sets the film up to be a good satire in the first hour. I was certainly annoyed by the attempt at using rhythmic poetry in the dialogue and also trying not to laugh at Nick Cannon attempting to look like a hardcore Trap King but I was fully engaged. Samuel L Jackson was his normal larger than life self as the ringmaster/narrator Dolemedes. Angela Bassett was HER normal case of perfection as the wise, educated next door neighbor Miss Helen. I was probably a bit too invested in knowing what the books on her bookshelf were but hey I’m a sapiosexual so that’s to be expected.
The title character of Lysistrata was incredibly played by Teyonah Parris who is no stranger to satire. She stole the show as Coco in Dear White People. There are so many conflicting questions about Lysistrata. She is the girlfriend of Nick Cannon’s character, Chi-Raq. She worships his “gangsta” identity and relishes her positon as the woman of the leader of the biggest gang in the city. She undergoes a transformation but interestingly enough it wasn’t having her house set on fire that brought on the transformation. It is the death of the young daughter of Irene (played beautifully by Jennifer Hudson) that drives her to leave Chi-Raq. Here is where the drama, and my questions, begin. Before I get to the questions I must warn you; this damn movie moved in so many directions my mind tended to wander off. Some of the questions I pose may have been resolved in the film but I wouldn’t know because I had to refocus myself several times. That should also give you an idea of where this review is going.
As I mentioned Lysistrata has a change of heart after a conversation with neighborhood academic Miss Helen. This conversation was meant to be like the scene in Boyz in the Hood where Furious schools the boys on gentrification. The conflict in Lysistrata is apparent which is a good thing. She wavers between understanding the knowledge Miss Helen gives and her allegiance to the streets and her man. She claims knowledge between Chi-Raq and his birth name of Demetrius. I buy all of this as most women will tell you they know a different side of their man. After she witnesses the crime scene of Irene’s daughter she meets with the “wives” of both her gang and their rival gang. They discuss their children and oved ones that have died in the streets and hatch a plan to “make these fools put down these guns.”
Before we even get into hour #1 I have my first question. Many have talked about how Spike uses stereotypes to theorize on who is getting killed in the street and not talking about the members of the LGBT community that are dying as well. My question is how did they come to have Felicia “Snoop” Pearson as a masculine of center woman in the wives club? This brings up SO many questions that Spike does not have the capability and probably the desire the answer. Are you saying that even a masculine presenting woman doesn’t have to be gay and may still want a man? It wouldn’t be the first time he did that. Lest we forget the sex scene in She Hate Me between John-Henry and a butch woman. And no she didn’t simply “look like a tomboy.” There is a dance scene in Chi-Raq, which I’m assuming is supposed to be a throwback to School Daze, where the women perform a sensual dance in the armory that they have taken over. In this scene Snoop can be seen chilling on a cot instead participating so she is clearly not at all even trying to align herself with the femmes. Is Spike trying to include her to say Queer kids are dying in the streets too? If he is would Snoops character be with the wives or husbands? It’s all very complicated and worthy or its own article. Bottom line: Spike Lee has way too much to learn about gender to even attempt this. If he was going to include queer people, he should have addressed trans women of color that our being killed and he should have had a consultant to help him do it.
On the subject of treating the bodies of black women as bargaining chips I almost got it. Spike’s failing is what becomes the undoing of the whole film and the center of all the other questions which is that he never resolves the conflicts. He is not expected to have the answers especially in a film of satire. However, when asserting an idea like having women use their bodies as a tool or bargaining chip you DO need to at least resolve that. The idea of women using their bodies to stop the war come from the Greek tragedy that the film is based on. That’s simple enough to handle however the role of satire is to eventually connect the dots for the viewer or give them the tools to connect the dots themselves. Spike did this brilliantly in Bamboozled. He got fuckin lazy in Chi-Raq. So the women devise this plan. Over time women in all sectors of the community get involved. The strippers stop stripping. The sex workers stop working. The biggest madam in the neighborhood goes on vacation because her girls refuse to work. Finally, the elders of the community get involved. The respectable country club men are up in arms because they feel they have been good negroes and they are being made to suffer for the sins of thugs. The protest reaches all the way to the Mayor who doesn’t act until his woman refuses to perform for him. The women take over an armory because Lysistrata goes and plays sex games with a racist army superior. He is racist but has no problem taking black pussy. That becomes the repeated refrain of both sides almost as if they have all lost sight of the true conflict which is violence.
All of this happens and there is no resolution. Seriously? I waited the entire movie to see the women move onto another tactic. Like maybe this protest brought them into the movement but they gained some awareness and decided to find another bargaining chip. Instead the movie continues on and on and on praising the women for finding their true power by negotiating the one thing that men can’t do without: their bodies. The movie starts its climatic descent with a sex off in lieu of the men meeting the demands of the women. Yes, that is as ridiculous as it sounds. Who thought that was a good idea? After the sex off, then entire community comes together to sign a peace treaty that was masterfully negotiated by the women by withholding sex from the men. Basically teaching yall women that if you had more respect and stop giving it up to men all the time then they would act right and we could have peace. Then Nick Cannon delivers a weird monologue about taking responsibility. I don’t want to give too much away but I will say that he claims to finally be free. The kind of free that he attains is not what we want any of our young black men to strive for. If anything it adds to the layer of tragedy. he is ultimately the one that tells the community to WAKE UP! But wake up to what? I sat in the theater for 2 hours and I still don’t know.
I really didn’t want to become one of those reviewers who got fixated on the misogynistic tone of the film but Spike left me no choice. Maybe if he hadn’t spent so much time focused on “no peace, no pussy” we wouldn’t have either. He had the opportunity to truly dig deep into the roots of violence and he decided not to do that. Calling it a Spike Lee Joint doesn’t make it good. Simply addressing a huge community issue isn’t good.
I wanted to love this film I really did. I thought that maybe Spike had created another Clockers or Bamboozled. Satire and violence are not new themes for him but it seems that he really is entirely to out of touch with what is going on in the community to create something that accurately displays the complexities of these issues. It is a shame too because there are actually some amazing moments in Chi-Raq that we should pay attention too. The funeral scene and the sermon that John Cusack delivers were amazing. Jennifer Hudson’s few scenes were incredibly passionate. There is a scene where Miss Helen is visited by an insurance agent that is preying on the community of young men that are being killed which is all too real. The script simply alludes to the complexities of all these community members but never fleshes them out or makes them real people. Much like the hip-hop music that he tries to blame, he simply takes the negative parts of their identities, throws it in the pot and expects to a winner.
As for me, I’m still struggling to figure out what exactly I’m waking up to. As a moviegoer that signals an epic fail.