See CHI-RAQ or Not?: A Spike
Lee Appreciator & Film Writer Tries to Answer
By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn |With thanks to NewBlackMan
Friday, December 4, 2015.
Still, thought is free . . . . But if the women
join us from Peloponnesus and Boetia, then Hand in hand, we’ll rescue Greece.
Anthenians [men]: I want to strip at once and
plough my land
Spartans [men]: And mine, I want to fertilize at
Lysistrata: And so you can, when Peace is once
declared . . .
-- from Lysistrata, Aristophanes
A few weeks ago after
leaving Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, trying to ignore folks’ question, ‘did you
like it?”, I thought about Bamboozled (2000) not that Chi-raq is
anything like that film. Bamboozled caused debate and division
and provoked some confusion and questions about it and the direction of Lee’s
work; some Spike Lee fans and moviegoers hated it and others didn’t get it
weren’t down with the satiric style, the representation of identities, etc.
According to Box Office Mojo, Bamboozled
grossed about $190, 000 opening weekend and grossed a little over
2,274,000 overall. But Bamboozled has become a film that’s generated
some serious intellectual consideration over time, and it seems Lee’s pointed
critique of contemporary and historical Hollywood racial politics gained
appreciation. I do not know what the fate of this December’s Chi-Raq is
going to be in terms of the box office or what it’s cultural and intellectual
measure over time will be – though certainly it will be engaged. I do know
this; Chi-Raq will provoke some head scratching, shoulder shrugging,
confusion, hate, praise, debate, and some what the #$#%%??????. And this is not
altogether a bad thing.
Chi-Raq, starring Nick Cannon, Samuel Jackson (Dolmedes),
Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusak, and Teyonah Parris
as Lysistrata recasts the famous Greek drama of the same name. In this, taking
a classic drama and giving it a cinematic contemporary twist or revision – Lee
has not done something new. We’ve seen numerous modernized takes on Greek and
Shakespearan dramas. However, Lee wades into doubly risky territory, one
because a lot of folks will neither be familiar with the ancient drama or be
interested in a movie that chooses not to adopt familiar Hollywoodish narrative
structure in recasting it but instead employs some of the strategies of
theatrical [stage] storytelling from monologues to the chorus voice, and two
because the cultural and contemporary setting (Chicago) and the black-on-black
crime and gun violence problem is not only highly visible but highly staked and
controversial especially in Chicago, which keeps competing yearly to top or
lower slightly it’s previous year’s black murder rate.
Spike Lee has never been afraid to
go bold, heavy, and experimental, from thematic content to mixing in and
innovating on different artistic forms and cinematic approaches [say
documentary & feature film devices]. But contemporary popular Hollywood
film has helped nurture a movie-going public that has narrative expectations
and one is that moviegoers can skip the book or the Greek drama reading, so to
speak, and just see the movie.
Staged around 411 BCE,
Aristophanes’ famous drama offers heroine Lysistrata, an Athenian woman who
takes on the twenty years plus Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.
Lysistrata manages to gather the warring men’s wives and lovers together and
convince the reluctant women to withhold all loving [sex in all forms] until
the men construct a legitimate peace. The premise – a woman stepping into men’s
‘business” and out of her prescribed role in the domestic sphere temporarily –
could lead to an easy read of it as a before-it’s-time kind of feminist text.
I vaguely recall the one time
classroom discussion I ever had about the Greek drama way back in undergraduate
revolving around a debate over whether Lysistrata and the drama stood as
challenges to patriarchy and if she was a kind of feminist or not. On the one
hand, she makes a stand that puts her in the unusual role of challenging the
men, disrupting business as usual in the political public sphere, and forging a
shrewd critique of war and men’s mismanagement of it. On the other hand, her
‘power’, the women’s power collectively, reinforces their traditional place in
relation to men, locating that power in sex, in their so-called feminine wiles
sexual bodies, and traditional femininity which is in its proper place in the
home as willing caretakers of men and children and sexual mates for their men;
to this they plan to return as soon as the men stop fighting each other to the
point of extinction and play nice. Stronger academics and intellectuals than we
students at the time had been fighting over this and claiming Lysistrata
as feminist or anything but long before and will continue to do so.
Lee chooses to retain the premise
of Lysistrata and gives a nod to a few other elements, including the
name of our heroine. Samuel Jackson’s Dolmedes plays part court jester and part
‘chorus’ (narrator) showing off the familiar rhetorical flamboyance and persona
we know, more, at points, to effect over-the-top impact than to inform and
signify on the state of violence in the streets and the sexed battle between
the woman and the men.
Lysistrata launches the sex
boycott to force her lover, Cannon’s Chi-Raq, and his opponent Cyclops (Snipes)
to broker a peace and end the violence between their two warring gangs. Her
mission is triggered after the young daughter of Hudson’s is shot and killed in
a drive-by. Lee’s intentions are good, even noble. He clearly wants to give
voice and face to the victims and dramatize the emotional and social impact of
violence on the community collectively hence visual references to fictional and
real victims of the absurd violence. The intention does not always match and
achieve the outcome throughout the film as stylistic choices and narrative
unevenness overshadow at different points the representation of that emotional
ethos needed to truly invoke that heartbreaking connect with the victims and
the surviving loved ones.
The original Lysistrata by
Aristophanes was very frequently described as “bawdy” that’s today’s
R-rated, sexually explicit, and raw. The women and men bask in sexual verbal
duels and the women are as hot and reluctant to abstain from sex as the men.
But Aristophanes’ drama did not try to achieve the task of humanizing the
innocent dead victims or community folk held prisoner in a sense by the
violence around them or mix contemporary language and a heavily media treated
social problem with a sensibility, humor, and language from thousands of years
before it as Chi-Raq does.
Because of the scope and nature as
well as timeliness of the subject matter, Lee’s tasked with retaining the sex
denial premise and some of that ‘bawdy’ rhetorical play and sensibility in the
original drama. But how to do this without at the same time overly sexualizing
or merely eroticizing the women in particular as well as the men, or reducing
the narrative’s representation of the socio-political sexual politics to merely
spectacle, overwhelming the bigger story that motivates the sex strike?
The result is an experiment that’s
partly too overly ambitious to cover the scope of a tremendously complex,
tragic, urgent social and political reality. Chi-Raq does not wholly
fail in all its effort, but it doesn’t altogether succeed. Rather it bumps into
some jarring narrative stops, starts, and twists and dangling, questionable
thematic threads, and scenes. Spike Lee’s intentionally pointed melodrama and
interplay between contemporary African American urban culture and the present
reality of Chicago and the ancient play [for example, at points the
superfluous, poetic dialogue] and the text’s theatricality means Chi-raq won’t
be easy viewing – but you already know that from Lee’s masterful premarketing
and because well, it’s Spike Lee after all.
I know – I took the long way around. Don’t go see Chi-Raq
because you expect to see a millennial Do the Right Thing. Don’t go see
it as a Spike Lee fan expecting a film you’ll be able to fit into the many
Spike Lee films you’ve seen over the last twenty years and don’t go as a
moviegoer expecting and demanding a slickly made, neat looking, traditional
Hollywood, feature film treatment of Chicago’s street violence. Check Chi-Raq
out and expect a timely, provocative, messy, film about a heartbreaking
It already is and will provoke real talk --
some will be about the director’s stylistic choices and approach to the film,
about the quality of the filmmaking, and about how he treats heterosexuality,
and problematically, women -- especially black women’s identities and bodies as
well as black masculinity, but some will also hopefully be about how Lee dares
mightily with Chi-Raq to examine the nature of our nonexistent, futile,
and revolutionary struggle with the violence in our streets, and extraordinary
means that we have and have not gone to in order to stop it.
professor Stephane Dunn, PhD, is the director of the Cinema, Television, &
Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She teaches film, creative
writing, and literature. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action
Films (U of Illinois Press). Follow
her on Twitter: @DrStephaneDunn