Stakes Is High: On Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”
By K. Austin CollinsJanuary 18, 2016
ON DECEMBER 22, 2012, in anticipation of the wide release of Quentin Tarantino’s slave-era revenge Western, Django Unchained, which was set to drop on Christmas day, Spike Lee, an artist never known to drag his feet when enraged, took to Twitter to issue a verdict. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” he wrote. “It Was A Holocaust.” Black Twitter lit up.
Early last year, Lee began dropping hints to the press about a strange-sounding new cinematic mélange of his own: a political film premised on a mash-up of style and subject whose components were at extreme odds, far enough removed from each other to make Tarantino’s fantasy of bloody reparations seem favorably low-risk. The film, purportedly a musical satire about gun violence in Chicago, was to be titled Chi-Raq. The title, taken alone, is a provocation. A term invented by rappers (or rather, by their record labels), “Chi-Raq” is affiliated with drill music, a Midwestern strain of trap music born in Chicago. The term has been repudiated by a wide range of Chicagoans, including rappers, activists and politicians, who, though varied and sometimes even at odds in their intentions, are working to rectify the city’s reputation for violence. Thus, when the film’s first trailer dropped in early November, Black Twitter, led by a chorus of prominent black Chicagoans, issued a verdict of their own.
The tweeted complaints about Lee’s new project — which is now streaming online, in addition to its theatrical run — are in part borne of unsatisfied political expectations, ideas about an artist’s responsibility to his subject, coupled with a keen sense of how that responsibility manifests itself aesthetically. We’d all heard — and the film’s title suggestively implied — that Lee’s project would be set on the South Side of Chicago, a pressure point in an entangled set of national conversations about gun violence, police violence, and black lives. We’d heard, and again the title seemed to confirm, that the film would specifically confront gun violence among young black men, a complicated, and easily mischaracterized problem few directors but Lee could or would do justice to (albeit with a dose of his idiosyncratic flair). We’d heard that the film would deal with how the city’s excess of gang shootings, which in particular plague the South and North Side’s lower-class black neighborhoods, have made the everyday lives of most black Chicagoans so bleak, so fraught, that these segments of the city had — no thanks to opportunistic pundits, politicians, and rap record labels — merited a dubious comparison to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence: Chi-Raq.
To many, fair representation of this subject has eluded public discourse for too long. The stakes were high. When some of us heard that the film was a satire, it became a sticking point, ready-made for finger wagging, especially for those who hadn’t yet forgiven or forgotten Lee’s last satire — the abrasive, mournful, spectacularly grotesque tragicomedy Bamboozled, little-seen but plenty discussed. Where that film traced the uncomfortably long history of blackface to our present moment, Chi-Raq, co-written by Lee and the black satirist Kevin Willmott (CSA: The Confederate States of America), was to be based in part on the bawdy, outlandish Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, dated 411 BC.
Mind you, there’s precedent for this. Reimagining modern black life through ancient Greek verse is its own black literary tradition, bringing to mind a diaspora of poets including Chicago native Gwendolyn Brooks (“The Anniad”) and Derek Walcott (Omeros), among others. Really, it’s the source material itself that’s proven a tough sell. Recall the premise: an Athenian woman named Lysistrata convinces women like herself, with husbands fighting on either side of the Peloponnesian War, to refuse their men sex unless they agree to peace. This has become a subject of some controversy in light of Lee’s film because, reduced to plot summary alone, the political, let alone emotional depth of the play’s sexual politics do not easily translate.
Lysistrata is a comedy whose implications are filled with disquieting rage. What a quick summary online can’t adequately convey is that it’s precisely through the play’s outlandishness that we understand one of its most enduring provocations: every warlord has a mother, and so does every casualty of war. If some wars begin at birth, which is how it must feel to be born amid immense conflict, then it may take mothers ending births, and ending bloodlines, to end battles. Are men not annihilating themselves, regardless? (When a writer for the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger recently claimed that the women of Lee’s film and, by implication, the Aristophanes play, were “reduced to walking vaginas,” I wondered if she’d considered this.)
A variation on this idea appears in this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road: “Our babies will not be warlords.” And it appears, perhaps most memorably, in The Godfather II, when Kay (Diane Keaton), the disillusioned wife of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), has an abortion: “I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world,” she says.
These are all films directed by men, but Lysistrata’s seriousness, her potential use to Lee and others, is affirmed by her real-world correlate, the Liberian activist and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee, whose nonviolent mass movement for women in Liberia helped to end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 by, among other things, staging sporadic sex strikes to gain media attention. “Women, wake up,” was her cry. The line could have been ripped from a Spike Lee movie.
Chi-Raq, Lysistrata: these words title the art of war. But is the South Side a war zone? Activists have long bristled at this comparison, and for good reason. War, to Americans, implies occurrences “over there,” beyond our borders. And war is something you can get politicians to care about. The title of Lee’s film suggests that he finds the comparison valuable, nevertheless, and this determines his filmmaking, which fills the world of Chi-Raq with the decrepit bodies of former gangsters in wheelchairs — men who could pass as extras in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July — as well as the constant scatter of gun shots on and off-camera. The film is breathless, urgent. Lee starts us off with a rap overture, emblazoning the screen with its lyrics (“Police siren everyday / People die everyday …”) before issuing a call to order: “This Is An Emergency.”
That message flared up in the trailer, too, though to some it must have seemed disingenuous. Real life is this film’s incessant meta-tension. The trailer for Chi-Raq dropped on November 3. The day before, a Monday, was an unusually memorable day in Chicago’s recent history of violence. Tyshawn Lee, 9, was shot and killed at close range as an act of gang retaliation, and Kaylyn Pryor, 20, an aspiring model, was shot and killed only a few blocks away. Into this void, you may remember, leapt the trailer for Chi-Raq, with its swaggering verse and brilliant colors, to say nothing of its comedy. Dave Chappelle laments losing strippers to a sex strike in hilariously affected rhyme, and a slick, dapper Samuel L. Jackson emcees as a chorus-like figure named Dolmedes, who, like your favorite uncle at a black family reunion, slyly versifies old school phrases like “fine Nubian sister.” “Welcome to Chi-Raq,” Jackson intones. Welcome to a war film filled with music and verse, with loud gestures and outfits, militant rows of black women in camo slapping their thighs as they chant “I will deny all rights of access or entrance” and “No peace, no pussy.”
Now the film is out and we have more names on our minds: Laquan, Tamir, and many others. The constancy of black death is in part the subject of “Pray 4 My City,” the song that opens the film, written and performed by rapper and occasional actor Nick Cannon, who stars here as Demetrius, a.k.a. Chi-Raq, a.k.a “The Long D” in his texts and sexts to his girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). Demetrius is the kind of guy who quotes Biggie and Tupac during sex and flexes his muscles, maybe even his gun, to hype himself up beforehand. He is the essence of what Lee feels is the root of the community’s gang problem, the singular embodiment of the link between sex and violence, between male ego and constant war. Listen out for when he threatens to “kill the pussy,” for the uncanny lurch of that phrase when uttered in this context.
Demetrius is a South Side rapper — Chi-Raq, as I’ll call him from here on, is his stage name — and he’s also the leader of one of Englewood’s two rival gangs, the Spartans, whose color is a lush purple. The other gang in town is the Trojans (of course) who are lead by Cyclops (played by the aging, vital Wesley Snipes), an amusingly corny older gangster with zero flow and an eye patch, apropos of his name, that is BeDazzled bright orange, after his gang’s color.
The film’s central conflict begins with a bit of trouble between these men. During one of Chi-Raq’s club performances, as Lysistrata and the girlfriends of the other Spartans are swaying in unison to the beat, hips and colors in sync with those of Chi-Raq’s gang-mates, some mild heckling from a man in the audience quickly escalates into guns drawn. The guy is a Trojan. This is one in a series of seemingly unending retaliations between the two gangs. Remember, this is a war. After the heckler is killed by one of Chi-Raq’s men, the only thing left for the Trojans to do, the logic goes, is strike back. Later that night, as Chi-Raq and Lysistrata are having sex in their home, Cyclops and his men set the house on fire. The climax of this back and forth, which continues into the next day, is the accidental shooting of a bystander — a child.
This is a turning point for Lysistrata, whom we’ve seen eyeing her birth control with some concern while home with Chi-Raq after the club shooting. Thanks to the lively, sympathetic intelligence of Parris’s performance, we sense that Lysistrata has already been thinking about having a future in a place where so few people have one. The film doesn’t quite traipse into the by now overfamiliar moral crisis of the mob wife, who only realizes that she’s living off the fat of her husband’s unforgivable violence when she’s in too deep to divorce herself from him and it. But this trope does provide some moral context: she is a woman more involved in the violence, more accountable to its victims, than she realizes.
Her awakening comes thanks to Irene (Jennifer Hudson), the mother of the dead child, who confronts Lysistrata directly, suggesting that she’s just as guilty as whoever actually killed her baby girl. The film’s keen concern for children and the emphasis on motherhood are perhaps where its ties to Aristophanes are strongest. On the advice of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a bookish older woman and, we eventually learn, a mother in her own right, Lysistrata decides to act. She reads up on Leymah Gbowee and gets to work on a new plan, a sex strike, that will ultimately involve all women (and affect all men), young and old, gay and straight, girlfriends as well as lovers on the side, strippers and other sex workers, mothers and daughters: sisters.
That’s the gist of what gets the film going. But being a Spike Lee joint, plenty else happens, including a truly strange turn in which gangbangers and Chicago’s militarized police force are subject to a grotesquely satirical send-up of war and the male ego. This portion of the film is shot and performed in the style of a musical, color-saturated adaptation of the enduring 1964 Stanley Kubrick fantasy, Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. You can see what Lee finds useful in this: if what’s happening in Chicago is a war, and if war is a tool of male pride, then all involved — gangbangers and cops alike — are willing participants in an unruly, unholy farce.
You cannot imagine Dr. Strangelove without the images of George C. Scott symbolically fellating himself by way of sucking a thick cigar, or of Slim Pickens, as Major King Kong, riding the bomb cowboy-style to apocalypse. Similarly, you will not be able to imagine Chi-Raq without the sights of PENIS ENVY emblazoned on an army tank, or without a white Confederate nostalgic named, you guessed it, Major King Kong straddling a Civil War cannon as (he thinks) he’s being seduced by a camo-clad Lysistrata.
In other words, the film grows more ridiculous by the minute. Angrier, too. This is an impulse familiar to the work and style of Spike Lee (have you seen She Hate Me?), who has long been known to favor the wildness of unbridled critique to the clear-eyed legibility of realism. It’s an impulse that has, does, and always will piss off as many people as it moves and intrigues. Chi-Raq is no different, even if the immediacy of what’s at stake seems to demand sobriety. No film can succeed in satisfying a tangle of expectations as rich as those facing this film, but the wonder of Chi-Raq, what makes it a remarkable film, is that it succeeds in giving us something both askew from these demands and, crucially, in excess of them.
The film I experienced is not quite the film advertised. It is only partially true that Chi-Raq is a colorful, outlandish satire. In fact, tonally, the film is practically split in two, and with the help of his actors and his outstanding cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Straight Outta Compton), Lee manages to carve out two distinct visual and moral worlds, weaving them together. One half concerns the sex strike of Lysistrata and the lives and lifestyles of Englewood’s rival gangs. It’s filmed and performed with an abundance of visual and theatrical artifice befitting, among other things, rap and R&B videos, black folklore, and Kubrick. It’s the stuff recognizable from the trailer. Dark and flush with color, it is captured with a camera wedded to the beat of that world’s spirited musicality.
But the film’s other mode is something else. Emotionally raw and brightly lit, this other half, which concerns Irene, the mother whose young child is killed in the film’s enraging opening act, replaces artifice with the solemnity of high tragedy — tragedy, it should be said, that is lent an intense air of nonfiction by the presence of Hudson, whose mother, brother, and seven-year-old nephew were all gunned down in Chicago, Hudson’s hometown, in 2008. The pain that reaches into the film from off-camera when Hudson is onscreen — pain given the essence of documentary, thanks to her presence — is indescribable. And it’s not only her. Among the Spartans and Trojans are a few men in wheelchairs and on dialysis whose injuries are not fictions. At one point, Dolmedes marches one injured man from each gang into the frame to point out their exasperating similarities — namely, their wounds. These men are true alumni of South Side gang violence, whose wounds become as much a signature of their belonging as their gangs’ colors.
Still elsewhere among the film’s large nonfictional public, which grows and grows as the film wears on, are members of Purpose Over Pain (POP), a local organization run by parents who’ve lost their children to gun violence. (POP is tied to Saint Sabina Church, which briefly serves as a location in the film and whose Father Michael L. Pfleger inspired the character played by John Cusack.) These parents stage a real protest in the film that, intercut with the satirical grotesque of Lysistrata’s sex strike, has an uncanny way of making what otherwise seem like distinct moral and aesthetic universes — one of outrage, one simply outrageous — sing in unison.
The more that Lee hops back and forth between these universes, striking a buoyant inconsistency of tone throughout his film, the more these modes begin to feel both as inseparable and as divorced as night and day. To put a finer point on it, most scenes involving Lysistrata, her fellow sex strikers and their boyfriends occur either at night or in darkened interiors — clubs and bedrooms — whereas Irene’s scenes are largely filmed outside, in stark daylight, or with that light streaming in, as during her daughter’s funeral in Saint Sabina. I’ll spare you a clever line about daylight and being “woke,” but Lee is clearly not above the idea.
What lends the film its pathos, sets its anger ablaze, and animates its most radical ideas are the moments in which Lysistrata and Irene, distinguished in the film by their separate aesthetic worlds, are collapsed into one scene and one frame. Urged on by the joyous bounce of an R&B song, Lysistrata careens into the crime scene of Irene’s daughter’s shooting and, within an instant, the film’s mood shifts. As this moment and others reconcile differing styles and moods, they also, jointly, build toward the moral and political reconciliation that closes the film. These shared scenes — Irene’s daughter’s crime scene, Cusack’s stirring jeremiad at her funeral, and the film’s astonishingly strange, vibrant climax — structure the emotional and intellectual logic of the film with as much rigor as Hester Prynne’s three trips to the scaffold.
Lee is pushing us not to take the value of these modes for granted. He is pushing us to see beyond realism as a marker of political seriousness — beyond the straight, progressive path to readily politicized sentiment that some have demanded of him. On the flip side, as in Bamboozled, he is pushing us to see beyond the easy smugness of all-knowing satire, so often besotted with questions its practitioners can already answer, pushing us to look toward the confounding, gut-punching discomfort of the real: unstoppable violence.
But is Chicago a war zone? The question remains, and the more I think about it, the more unfair the comparison seems. Chi-Raq has an answer for this, too. Lee opens the film with a collage, a panoply of red, white and blue guns, segregated by color and dramatically arranged into a vision of the United States of America, its contours and its conceits. If Chicago is a war zone, it isn’t alone: look at our country. The idea is pretty on the nose — have I mentioned that this is a Spike Lee film? — but its implications reach beyond the movie’s theme to encompass bigger considerations: questions of genre and form, questions of art.
This is an “art film” in as literal and pronounced a sense as can be envisioned by that term. It is a film with an intellectual logic that continually forces it off the rails of its plot into imagistic tours of Chicago, specifically the art of Chicago, arguing for Chicago as art by giving us a taste of its look and design, its local color, the theater of its history and substance. Again and again, Chi-Raq abandons its characters, opening out onto visions of the city, drifting unannounced from anti-violence murals in Englewood to sky-gazing views of glistening towers Downtown. We take a swift, lively ride on the El; we visit the statues of Michael Jordan and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Everywhere he can, Lee offers up these flourishes. A house that gets firebombed early on is seen again later, from across the street, with its windows boarded over and covered in colorful murals. An animated, seemingly life-sized advertisement for a strip joint looms, loud and suggestively pink, behind Irene as she passes out reward notices for tips on her baby girl’s murderer. More: protests in which our eyes can’t help but linger on the colorful picket signs, omnipresent gang tags covering Englewood in a second skin, crowded bulletin rows of posters memorializing the South Side’s dead.
Chicago, as Lee sees it, is a city full of visions of itself, visions always in conflict and always, thanks to their common source, susceptible to the restorative, conciliatory power of art, as well as to art’s destructive influences. That the term “Chi-Raq” originates in music is not lost on Lee, nor is it any small incident that the Chi-Raq of his film is a rapper.
What Lee’s after is a way of troubling precisely those notions of representation that anger or confound us. When we debate whether the film is useful or responsible, we act out its values, we reiterate precisely the questions Lee is asking us. This is no mere thought experiment. Can satire stop a bullet? Likely not. But it can provoke those of us who haven’t, and can.
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