Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4Jul/160

Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015)

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What to do in a city where gangs are caught in a perpetual cycle of violence?  Dolemides watches and narrates with bemused interest, noticing the strong-willed Lysistrata who's tired of her man Chi-Raq trading blood for blood.  Taking a cue from her comrades in Liberia, Lysistrata leads the women of Chicago on a sex strike until the men are willing to put down their pistols and talk peace.  Spike Lee directs Chi-Raq from a screenplay co-written by Spike and Kevin Wilmott, and stars Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack.

It's making me insaneThe first 10 minutes or so of Chi-Raq had me thinking back to Red Hook Summer. That was another film where Spike Lee seemed suddenly reinvigorated, not necessarily mimicking the rhythm and editing of earlier classic efforts like Do the Right Thing, but echoing their energy. As one of the the long takes opening that film followed the central characters through Red Hook, Lee had again found a way to tap into a complex, living, breathing community in his fiction the way then-recent documentary entries had shifted to. I had the same sense during the opening of Chi-Raq, where Spike drops us into a club moments before a shooting, transposing various voices from social media and texts with some rapid cutting that embodies the strong connection between the musicians and the crowd.

The reason I keep going back to that opening sequence (among some others) is that I can't think of too many ways to discuss Chi-Raq that aren't anchored in the aesthetic dimensions of the movie. Like so many of Spike's later films, the majority of the discussions here seem culled from an article or two and massaged into the dialogue. He hasn't been unsuccessful in this, but he's failed to use the dramatic situation and characters to build up much additional insight around these basic well-known talking points and statistics. Awhile after the movie was over, I was left with the impression I'd spent two hours letting Spike read a well-researched New York Times article to me that I'd already read myself.

That's a shame considering that, as usual, he demonstrates such a unique command over every aspect of the film. The craft is so clearly on display here that it's hard to imagine this isn't exactly the film he wanted to make (the production itself seems to confirm that as well), which makes the scattershot inconsistency and general lack of depth confusing. There are a handful of scenes that have some real, lasting power—which I'm sure we'll get to—but so much of the movie is all over the place that those sequences didn't connect and build into anything significant for me. Even when the tone shifts to near-Abrahams & Zucker levels of goofy satire (a soldier being carted away in a straight jacket comically shaking his head and repeating "big booty big booty"), it can sometimes be really funny and effective—the problem is we're recalibrating in nearly every scene to the movie we're supposed to be watching.No peace no pussyIn a few ways, I'm right there with you in your response to Chi-Raq.  But in the most important ways I'm diametrically opposed.  If Chi-Raq dropped today, with none of Spike's previous films to reference, I'd feel a bit more like you do.  Since Chi-Raq follows a period of restless creativity when the same social and economic ills plague black Americans, I have to think of it as the energetic, optimistic, and pointed follow-up to Do the Right Thing.  In 1989, Spike saw a simmering pot of tensions ready to explode in any direction with black Americans needing to take over their economic lives.  In 2015 there's no such economic push, there are already rappers and gangsters living on the shadow economy, and without government stepping in and bringing widespread employment things aren't going to get better.

That's where I don't think you're too far off comparing Red Hook Summer, especially with Chi-Raq's spectacular opening.  Where Red Hook Summer, and Do the Right Thing, got knee-deep into the rhythm of daily life, Chi-Raq goes straight into a verse from the chorus, then a character beat, and right back into the chorus.  Spike always said he wanted to make a full musical and here he manages to do that without including many musical numbers thanks to the chorus / character structure.  With Chi-Raq everyone lives to the rhythm of the music in some way, be it from Angela Bassett's firm and self-assured rhymes, to Samuel L. Jackson's insightful MC work, and, in the most surprising development, John Cusack tearing up a sermon with more fire than I've ever seen from him.

Chi-Raq pivots on an act of violence too, much like Red Hook Summer with the priest confessing after he is attacked, and in Do the Right Thing with the murder of Radio Raheem.  Unlike those films, Chi-Raq is more concerned with the aftermath of the violence instead of the build up followed by the community reaction.  This is why the musical structure is beautifully employed even if it results in few musical numbers.  The violence of daily life is built right in with the dialogue, and expressed through the gunfire texts and the militia wardrobe Lysistrata clothes herself in.  It's a fable that acknowledges it's a fable, a happy ending that's probably not possible, as violence is so deep in their lives that it takes a miracle and the involvement of wealthy companies to solve all the problems.  Spike is more optimistic than normal here, celebrating Chicago in all its darkly colorful glory, and I was able to jump from scene to scene when I thought of the music of the dialogue as an extension of the violence.

This gun wouldn't be caught thereTiny Kyle CommentaryI like the idea of the rhymed verse dialogue acting as an extension of the potential bursts of violence throughout, though the seeming randomness with which characters lapsed in and out of that mode made it more distracting for me than anything else. One exception there is Jackson, who comes at the narrative from outside the actual diegesis in a way that, combined with his infectious zeal with every word of dialogue, worked really well for me. And while I liked the musical numbers more than a lot of the scenes in the movie, I'm with you in that they may be more effective because they're so sparse.

You pointed to the sermon Cusack gives as one good example of the pacing and dialogue working to punctuate the narrative in a way similar to that which musical numbers often serve in musicals. I want to point to one more: the scene where Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) visits Cusack's character, which starts with a slow pan across a wall painted with memorials to various victims of local violence from the past 15-20 years. The camera pans all the way around to Chi-Raq, and then tracks behind him as he walks past a few guards into the building where he meets Cusack, sitting across a table from him like they're in the middle of military negotiations. It's a rare instance where the fable-meets-tragedy tone works seamlessly with the more satire-heavy, musical-influenced scene that came before it (the verse-chorus structure you mentioned).

I wonder to some extent if the play Spike took as influence for Chi-Raq could have been one-step further removed. There are scenes that seem to float around in between the major movements simply taking up time that could have been used to revisit some of the central characters. Part of what Spike's obviously going for here is a huge mosaic of characters from various social and legal spheres, but he accomplishes that sense of scale early on. When we get to some later scenes that pivot heavily around individual characters, I wished we'd had a little more time with them—that extra context and development may have given the movie some extra dramatic heft.Be a good manNewer Andrew cutout commentaryOne of the scenes which may fall into the wheelhouse of "cutting the fat" may be when the insurance agent from Red, White, and Blue visits Miss Helen.  It's an aberration in terms of the tone and style of the rest of Chi-Raq.  The colors are bright and cheery, it's one of the few big scenes where things settle down in the daytime, and it's got sort of a '50s-esque "everything's fine in the suburbs" feel.  Even with the differences in that moment to the rest of Chi-Raq, I think it would be a mistake to cut it.  The insurance agent, played with the perfect tone of sorry-not-sorry by Roger Guenveur Smith, is a reminder of how the economic gains Do the Right Thing posited as necessary are of little help when it results in the poor feeding on their own.

Even the sex scenes, normally the lowest point in all Spike's movies, are necessary.  I'm stunned Chi-Raq came out in the same year as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and where Da Sweet Blood's sex scenes felt gratuitous and creepy, the sex scenes of Chi-Raq are both sexy and empowering.  Just look at the way Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) comports herself at both the beginning and the end.  With her leather lingerie, gold chains, and big afro she is dominant both with herself and with Chi-Raq.  She says as much in the dialogue, demanding her man please her before she returns the favor.  Then there's that absurd to the point of brilliance idea of a sex-off with the brass lighting and huge bed where Lysistrata, again, dominates Chi-Raq and leads him to his painful confession at the end.

I haven't seen or heard many direct throwbacks to older black cinema in Spike's movies.  He's been doing his own thing so effectively that I might not have noticed, or it might not have struck him.  This may be where the screenplay, co-written by Kevin Willmott, puts a lot of history into play.  I loved a pillow-talk moment with Chi-Raq, just after he has sex, where he talks about how his father got him the finest hooker to bed him because he washed his father's Cadillac.  This reminds me of the story behind a flashback sex scene in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, where the father, Melvin van Peebles, had his son, Mario van Peebles, stand-in as young Sweetback to lose his virginity at a young age.  The structure of Chi-Raq, with the raps and story of the empowerment of young black men, come from songs and movies that have troubling implications of misogyny and violence.  Spike and Willmott make Chi-Raq a sort of reclamation in this way, repurposing the violence of rap and older black cinema to a story that abandons that violence and gives women the power.GriefTiny Kyle CommentaryI wasn't as confident in the sex and gender dynamics, in part because the women's power comes exclusively from their ability to deny sex and doesn't really develop into anything more from there. It's not that Lee treats their agency over their sexuality in a problematic way so much as that the entire premise implicitly limits and stereotypically fixes their role. For the movie to work at all, we have to buy into the "guys are helpless neanderthals who want sex all the time without qualification" and "women use sex to get what they want" tropes (which are insidious bullshit).

I'm not sure what the solution to that would be, other than opening things up to include not just men and women but also various sexualities on both "sides" of the withholding–"please have sex with me" conflict, but that would require a stepping away from tired tropes about men and women's relation to sex that I can't see Spike accepting in the first place, much less employing in a film.

I will agree with you, though, that deeply-flawed premise aside, Lee treats his limited scope of sex and sexuality here much better than the creepy Skinemax softcore of Da Sweet Blood. (Which, maybe ironically, will probably stick with me longer than Chi-Raq for sheer unbridled weirdness and absurdity, despite being a significantly less realized movie.)Deny deny denyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI'd be bothered by the implication if Spike didn't have the good sense to provide real-world examples of sex strikes in the diegesis of Chi-Raq.  Roughly twenty minutes in, Lysistrata takes a trip to the library to do some research on sex strikes and we see footage of Leymah Gbowee talking about her campaign in Liberia.  Spike doesn't press on the conclusion, which led to the women of Liberia ending the war and electing their first woman President, but its inclusion helps reframe the action of Chi-Raq less as manipulative shenanigans and more as a course of protest which has worked.

The strong women in Chi-Raq are multitude from the Foxy Brown-inspired Lysistrata, to confident teachings of Miss Helen, and down to the agonizing pain of Irene.  The latter shows Jennifer Hudson's Oscar win in 2006 wasn't a fluke, and she exudes bravery and real-world torment as Irene since Hudson's mother, brother, and nephew were killed in a Chicago shooting.  This is part of what I was getting at with Spike pulling from different artistic sources to taper back some of the misogyny in his earlier films.  By blending so many real-world and fictional examples together he achieves a rare hybrid of passionate protest with Chi-Raq comparable to Do the Right Thing.

Some of that may be lost in Chi-Raq's energetic presentation since so many colors and dance scenes assault the senses from scene one that the nuance of the real-world examples may be lost.  That's where the chorus / character structure is so important, as it begins with the chorus of Chi-Raq and friends lost in a violent groove, and ends with the character of Chi-Raq submitting himself to peace and justice.  The rhythm of Chi-Raq left me with goosebumps from the first frame to the last, and the worst thing I can say about Spike's latest is that it can be exhausting.  In the end, I'd rather be exhausted from an artist who is pushing himself to new boundaries in his fourth decade of film-making, than someone content to rest on the laurels of his earlier flicks.  Since this gave us the now-indispensable image of a Confederate-underwear clad old white guy mounting a canon, I can't argue with the smile on my face and the bumps on my arms.

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Posted by Andrew

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