The Miseducation of “Chi-Raq”

There had been buzz in the past year or so that there was a filming of a movie entitled “Chi-raq” with the gun violence at the center of the movie.  My initial thought, given the title was that it was going to be a documentary.  I made this assumption because at the time the portmanteau was making many people bristle because of its direct implication of the deaths of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Spike Lee, the director, in his opening credits makes a direct correlation between the two showing the number of deaths between 2001 and 2015 in Iraq and Afghanistan and a number nearly doubled when it comes to murders in Chicago in the same time period.  The album “Watch the Throne,” a collaboration with Chicago’s own Kanye West and Jay-Z dropped in 2011 and it was among the first time the comparison of urban violence, specifically that in black and brown neighborhoods was colloquially being compared to the violence overseas.  This fact was no more apparent when Kanye spit the lyrics

And I’m from the murder capital where they murder for capital
Heard about at least three killings this afternoon
Looking at the news like “damn! I was just with him after school”
No shop class but half the school got a tool
And a “I could die any day”-type attitude
Plus his little brother got shot repping his avenue
It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power
41 souls murdered in fifty hours

Is it genocide?
Cause I can still hear his mama cry
Know the family traumatized
Shots left holes in his face about piranha-sized
The old pastor closed the cold casket
And said the church ain’t got enough room for all the tombs
It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go
314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago

The actual word Chiraq came about shortly after this and the rise of drill music.  Think Chief Keef.  The frenetic bass line coupled with a relatively high bpm became the track to which the ultimately nihilistic lyrics of the gritty and grimy life existing in a city that’s marching ever onward and indicative of an African American culture that is still deciding whether it wants to be modern or postmodern.  For some old heads, drill music is what gangsta rap was coming out of the late 80s and early 90s; a stark lyrical translation of life as they saw it and as they lived it.  It was from this musical genre that Chiraq became synonymous with Chicago.

Drill music, if at all possible, capitalizes on the existential dregs that gangsta rap left behind in Compton when it began to ask are we there yet.  While many middle class blacks lift up NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” as emblematic of a counter-culture’s revolutionary power and mindset, we do so in a historical vacuum.  Let’s not forget that that was one track out of the dozens of other songs that were a reflection of the abject nihilism of what it meant to live in those neighborhoods and those cities.  Not much has changed for the musicians that created drill music such as Lil Durk, Lil Reese, Fredo Santana and King Louie.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee

This is the backdrop to which Spike Lee filmed the movie entitled “Chi-raq.”

Cinematically, the movie was everything that we’ve come to expect from Lee in his major production films, especially those in which he is attempting to satirize and therefore critique some facet of African American culture.  Lee diverged from this line with movies like “Summer of Sam” and more recently “Miracle at St. Anna” and “Inside Man,” but still the vast majority of his directorial credits would align with the production of “Chi-raq.”

What cannot be overemphasized is that this movie was an adaptation from Aristophenes’ “Lysistrata.”  The play was written in 411 BCE and the titular character, Lysistrata, rallied women to withhold having sex with their male counterparts in order to end the Peloponnesian war.   The play was a complete satire even featuring men wearing erect phalluses over their garments.  And Lee, while not having men wear phallus items over their clothes, he did not disappoint with the over-the-top hyperbolic scenes nor the fact that the entire movie was written in verse that more often than not, actually rhymed.

In this urban and 21st century retelling, Lysistrata, played by the thoroughly capable Teyonah Parris, was the central character rallying women on the South Side of Chicago, old and young, to withhold having sex with their husbands and boyfriends for the sake of ending the killing.  She was spurred by the death of a young girl who’s mother was played by Jennifer Hudson.  Lysistrata was the girlfriend of the leader of the Spartans gang, who was named Chiraq fortuitously so, and played by Nick Cannon.  The rival gang, the Trojans, were orange-clad men led by Cyclops (no real reference to the ancient play “Lysistrata”), played by Wesley Snipes.  The movie’s plot was carried forward by familiar faces to Spike Lee joints as well as utterly comedic moments such as Dave Chappelle as a strip club owner or the banter between Harry Lennix’s character as the police commissioner with other players.   None of these scenes were to be topped by the one in which Lysistrata took over the armory and her interaction with General King Kong.

The movie concludes with the satirical loose-ends being pulled together by magical farce resulting in everyone, the chorus of men, the chorus of women, the mayor, the white priest with an entirely black congregation, both gangs, standing in white and Fortune 500 companies pledging that everyone in the ‘hood will have a job (a nod to an earlier demand made in the movie by characters).  Basically, it was a tragic dystopian kumbayah moment.  The mothers, specifically the mothers of real life slain Chicago children, emerged from the crowd functioning as a last-minute tear-jerker before the credits rolled, but also as a real life reminder that this is more than just a movie for the sake of entertainment.

However, I knew something was amidst when the first trailer for the movie dropped.

The vast majority of comments, via social media, were that the movie was going to be trash and people were trying to figure out why Samuel L. Jackson’s character, aptly named Dolemedes (no doubt a nod to the blaxploitation era character Dolemite) complete with loud pimp-esque suits and carrying a cane and wearing a hat, was speaking in rhyme and staring dead into the camera.  Not to mention it was clear that sex and sexuality was going to be front and center given the clothing that Lysistrata was wearing.  As the first screening was held, Black Twitter along with other websites catering to African American culture began firing out think-pieces that absolutely debased the movie, meanwhile white movie critics were generally praising the movie both for its cinematography as well as its social commentary.  By the time the movie was released nationwide, it was apparent that the vast majority of the black social media demographic simply did not like the movie.

One of the primary concerns I heard was that the movie did not address the structural issues that led to gun violence in black in brown neighborhoods.  While I can recite until I’m blue in the face the structural problems that have led us to where we are in poor communities across the country, there comes a certain point where one becomes numb to the statistics and deadened to the perpetual critique.  Social activist Umi Selah, formerly known as Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders famously challenged Lee.  Selah, was born and raised in Chicago and in a question and answer panel exchange with Lee, Selah made the claim that

“You’re creating a film here that places the entirety of the blame and the situation and the plight that’s going on in Chicago on the people of Chicago.  How many lives you gon’ save without creating jobs for those people in Chicago? You not telling nobody the truth about what’s going on in Chicago and around this country…there is an experiment that if you put mice on top of each other, they’re going to steal, kill and destroy each other, brother. So if you put a bunch of people in projects all over this country, what you think they gon’ do?”

As Selah is being escorted out, Spike tells him that he didn’t see the movie and Selah yells back, “I saw enough.”

I took that exchange into the movie theatre when I finally went to see it.  I kept waiting for the absence of structural concerns being raised, but I heard Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett, talk about the lack of jobs and say that the same things were happening in places like Body B-more and Killa-delphia.  I kept waiting for the movie to not connect the appearance of guns on the streets of Chicago, but Fr. Corrigan, played by John Cusak and supposed to be a direct stand-in for real life priest and pastor Fr. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina, spoke of the real life Chicago issue of guns being bought across the border in the state of Indiana that make their ways back to the streets of Chicago.  I kept waiting for the movie to not indict government, but then it was clear that the mayor was to be seen as a buffoon and worthy only of a cheap laugh, and the way that the American military was portrayed through General King Kong was such a level of acerbic criticism, perhaps it was too much and no one understood it.

Perhaps, if anywhere in the film that I felt that “Chi-raq” simply got it wrong was over the issue of gangs, and especially gangs in Chicago.  Jason Harrington wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times saying that

I hear when it comes to portrayals of black Chicago gangs is the way they are shoehorned into this outdated, color-coded, Crips versus Bloods narrative — exactly the misconception that Lee’s film helps perpetuate.

Growing up in Chicago, much like the exalted Bloods versus Crips, there was a daily concern about what colors you wore, what team hat you wore and even which direction you hat was turned.  Harrington goes on to say that that doesn’t hold water nearly as much as it once did, if at all.  A quick drive through Englewood or Auburn-Gresham and you’ll see these same young people wearing fitted pants and Aeropostale and Abercrombie and Fitch shirts.  Long gone are the days of baggy oversized jackets and pants.  The days that Lee portrayed are but a distant memory.  Nevertheless, in a film that used subtlety with the force of freight train roaring down the tracks, to have addressed the sets that populate urban neighborhoods in Chicago, it would have imaginably made the story line needlessly complicated.

Admittedly, I was nervous watching a Spike Lee movie where it focused on black women and, well, sex and sexuality.  Spike has never been a shrinking violet in these cinematic portrayals of sex on screen.  Almost to the point of black female bodily exploitation.  As the sex strike commenced in the movie, there were two tense scenes in which I wondered if the issue of rape was going to be an issue.  Salamisha Tillmet wrote also wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which she interview Lee and he said that “There is no rape in the film.  It is satire.”  Tillmet also took the time to address the role of black women and sex and sexuality portrayals in cinema.  I wish she had taken the time to describe some of the troubling ways that Lee has historically done this and the ways in which, to some extent, he rectified that in this movie.

“Lysistrata” has always been left to the eye of the beholder where to see the women as agents or objects.  Whether one wants to see the women as having enough agency over their lives and their bodies to reclaim power or to see that their bodies and their sex is the only power that they have left in a patriarchal world.  For me, especially given the conclusion, I believe Spike chose the former whether he would admit it or not.  Aside from the central male character, Chiraq, the chorus of men were painted as complete jackasses; dunderheads who were willing to break into the armory with keys to the chastity belts that the chorus of women were wearing rounding out the sheer absurdity of the film’s satirical premise.

Yet, after the immediate dust had settled, there was yet another chorus of criticism that overwhelmingly sided with the likes of Umi Selah.  The timing of the movie’s release was nothing less than serendipitous.  While it would be safe to say that Spike would have probably filmed this movie whether or not Black Lives Matters protests and demonstrations dominated the media for 2015 or not, the movies release coinciding with renewed local protests in Chicago surrounding the death of Laquon McDonald and the makings of a cover-up in the Chicago Police Department that goes all the way to the mayor’s office could not have been predicted.  It was yet more fuel to the fire of criticism that said that Lee fundamentally did not do the city of Chicago justice by telling their story.  Even famous Chicago hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper weighed in on Twitter laying into Lee, who clapped back in a way that only he could.   Young people from Donda’s House being interviewed by WGN’s Dean Richards sum up just how much angst there is against the movie.

It was hard to ignore that much of the on-the-ground criticism of “Chi-raq” included an outright rejection of seeing the movie as satire.  That troubled me.  It left me wondering on what grounds did people decide to suspend entertainment and critique when it came to this movie.  The title itself is jarring and because of it, it was met with opposition.  Fourth ward alderman Will Burns unsuccessfully lobbied to deny Lee tax credit for filming here because of the name.  But it’s more than the name.  There was and still is this strong undercurrent of sentiment about what a collective black-ness needs to do about the current situation surrounding black lives and questioning do they really matter to America.

What seems to primarily evident is that many black people, especially in Chicago, expected a very different movie from Lee.  Perhaps many were expecting a film that engaged in some distant notion of ontological communal uplift.  Maybe the expectation was to see a film that engaged in old tropes of having a charismatic leader, embodied through Lee, to “speak some truth to power” in the spirit of Martin Luther King 2.0 couched in the ideological narrative of Black Lives Matters.  None of this happened, and people were not just disappointed but disgusted.  The film did not offer any real solutions partly because there aren’t any real solutions to the Brobdingnagian problem of the deaths of black and brown folks in urban areas.  No more than there are real solutions to addressing the deaths of human lives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The movie weaved together the complexities of sex and sexuality between black women and black men, shadowed by the powers-that-be of the local government and the federal government imaged through the military.  Aside from Lysistrata, Chiraq’s character easily functioned as a metaphor for any American city that’s fraught with urban violence.  Much like our own American cities, Chiraq only walked the road to redemption, still wearing his gang colors, when the community forced him to do so.  Even looking for a last minute escape, the mothers, the other chorus of women, stood in his way and forced him to face justice.  At what point will communities rise up and require our country to simply do better and be better?

Rather than lambasting Spike Lee for holding up a mirror to the black community, perhaps we should take heed to the message.  This wasn’t so much a “personal responsibility” message that we have heard before in the realm of respectability politics, but rather a personal responsibility message saying that we, as a community, have the responsibility to require better of our own communities and of the cities we dwell.  Perhaps even leaving room to extrapolate it to a larger level with regards to a national movement.

As Spike Lee usually says, it’s time to wake up.