Friday, January 22, 2016

Shout Out to Chi-raq

I’ve done a lot of soul searching about whether to write a review promoting “Chi-raq.” I had some initial misgivings, but honestly, I was shocked to find out how many black people were outraged after seeing the trailer. They thought the humor was in bad taste, disrespected Chicago, and that it made light of an important issue in the black community: gang violence. After some reflection (and reading Tasha Robinson’s “Review: Chi-Raq is SpikeLee's larger-than-life love letter to Chicago”), I feel that Spike Lee showed great courage in making a movie condemning gang violence in this time of mounting racial tension.

This isn’t the first time that Spike Lee has put himself in the line of fire for his controversial beliefs. “Do the Right Thing” (now heralded as a must-see classic) came out at a time when racial tension was at a boiling point in New York City. In the late eighties, when I lived in Brooklyn, race riots seemed to be the norm. The movie was inspired by a racial incident where a car broke down just outside of the Howard Beach area of Queens and three black boys walked into a pizzeria to use the phone. A group of white boys, incensed that these black boys were in their neighborhood, called out racial slurs and started a row. One of the black teens was killed trying to escape into traffic. New York was in an uproar. Over 1,200 marched in a highly charged protest.  In 1989, the year the film came out, another black teen was murdered in Bensonhurst.  Racial tension was at a boiling point.  I remember feeling nervous at the Brooklyn premiere of “Do the Right Thing.” Reviewers had predicted that the movie would incite race riots - that blacks would get so riled up by the brutal climax that they would run out of the theater and burn things.  Personally, I was shaken to the core by the heart-wrenching ending.

Some felt it was irresponsible to release a film that culminates in a black riot in such a racially charged time. But Spike Lee believed that it would incite conversation and hopefully inspire change by bringing the problem out in the open. And it did. People lined up in the streets to see the film. Entrances were blocked by people (black and white) ardently debating the racial issues in the movie they had just seen.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 26 years since “Do the Right Thing.”  Unfortunately, gang violence is on the rise - spurring Spike Lee to make another movie in the spirit of “Do the Right Thing.”  But, this time he’s gunning for gang bangers in “Chi-raq.” Even the name is inflammatory. Pronounced "shy-RACK", the title is a juxtaposition of "Iraq" and "Chicago", coined by South Side Chicago residents who compare the area to a war zone because of its high crime rates.

Mister Señor Love Daddy in “Do the Right Thing"
Let's examine the complaint that Spike Lee is making light of the problems in South Chicago. If you watch the movie, it is clear that it is a highly stylized satirical remake of a Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, in which Lysistrata convinces the wives of the Athenian and Spartan soldiers to withhold sex until their husbands agree to stop the endless war. (Teyonah Parris plays the gang leader's girlfriend Lysistrata.) Spike Lee and playwright Kevin Willmott stay true to the tone of the source with its over the top bawdy humor. (In the play, the men go around with cloths draped over their huge cod pieces.) “Chi-raq” has that Spike Lee flare, with Samuel L. Jackson (who played the DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy in “Do the Right Thing”) acting as a one man Greek chorus. The dialogue is sheer poetic genius – a combination of Shakespearean couplets, slam poetry riffing, and freestyle rap.

Director Spike Lee
This movie isn’t for everyone. Sometimes the humor is just plain over the top. He treats both whites and blacks as horny buffoons. Two of the three white characters are depicted as racist stereotypes (especially in a scene where Lysistrata uses her feminine wiles to capture the Confederate-fetishist General King Kong). The movie would have been more accessible if he had cut that offensive scene. Apparently, Spike Lee will go to ridiculous lengths to get people talking. He pushes people's buttons with purposefully derogatory rap lyrics to incite conversation among blacks. Spike Lee's intention is to WAKE people up. In fact, the first line in both “Do the Right Thing” and “Chi-raq” is, “Wake up."

“Chi-raq” is no comic trifle. There are some very moving scenes - particularly those with Jennifer Hudson as the grieving mother of a little girl shot while playing. The movie deals with important themes. “Chi-raq” is society out of balance - where the maternal side is no longer protected, but disrespected, and the worst side of man is allowed free reign.  In a spirited rap number, women seem to worship the gang leader/rap singer Chiraq (Nick Cannon) who preaches violence. “Chi-raq” is a call for black women to wake up and use their strength to stand up against the senseless violence.

What does it take to wake people up who have gotten used to daily violence - where children dying in the streets is considered normal? Spike Lee’s answer is to be LOUD, bold, outrageous, disrespectful – to incite anger. He is shouting at the top of his lungs, “WAKE UP!”

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Shout out to Spike Lee! Spike won a long overdue honorary Oscar. Hear his impassioned speech

1 comment:

Jana Stormont said...

Spike Lee has been in the news lately. He is asking blacks to boycott the all white Oscars. He has a point. If you look at the head-shots of all the actors nominated, it is completely white.