Spike Lee Aims To Put Gun Violence To Bed
DIRECTOR: SPIKE LEE/2015
Spike Lee is making some noise, and he wants to make absolutely sure that you hear it. After a solid decade, or longer, of slowly sliding into a plane of cultural irrelevance that the outspoken filmmaker is simply not suited for, the maker of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X is re-emerging as his old firebrand self.
Chi-Raq, a wailing, wrenching, and downright bizarre screed on the crisis of gun violence in the south side of Chicago is, by design, an unforgettable experience. Brazenly based on the ancient play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, it’s shot in the streets where the gun problem is very real, the film nonetheless ventures freely and deliberately into the land of both tired cinematic tropes and cockamamie storytelling notions long rejected by the screen. You will be genuinely moved at times, but you roll your eyes in disbelieve just as often.
The film is a positively schizophrenic blend of anti-violence, irate feminism, rampant male gazing, religion, and hip-hop culture – all areas by no means unfamiliar to Spike Lee’s filmography – but here, more-so than ever before, they are transparently utilized as collective means to an end. It’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, guaranteed, on a viewer by viewer basis, to contain portions that simply, glaringly, do not work. These moments are butted up against others that will no doubt fail to affect. The result is dizzying, exhausting, and ultimately effective in the most purely of unconventional ways. It’s world is colorful and delirious, but also appropriately drab, maudlin and littered. Chi-Raq is no less than the most fascinating mess of the 2015 movie year.
Characters speak in verse, for crying out loud. Flashing text graphics (“THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!!”), as well as a flamboyant narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson, interrupt the movie at will to speak directly to the camera in a kind of snappy, stylized poetry. What is he saying? It’s hard to tell, between his quick-rhyming flair and distractingly colorful suits, which appear to have claimed most of the film’s budget. For many, he will be the highlight.
Another highlight is Teyonah Parris (Dear White People), selling her character’s implausible plan as viable. She plays Lysistrata, a young woman who’s quiet outrage over the gun violence perpetuated by her boyfriend, a rapper who goes by the name Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), and the competing gang boss, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, in a variety of sequined eye patches) leads to her persuading all local women to a sex strike protest.
After initial resistance, all wives, girlfriends, prostitutes, strippers, and causal lovers make a pact to not give in to their male lovers until things change on the streets. As the ladies take over the Chicago armory as their headquarters, the movement spreads, eventually to the global level, Chi-Raq falls more and more into odd fantasy. The women’s human personalities take a backseat to their newfound personas as wearers of skintight urban camo skirts and actual chastity belts with huge locks on the fronts. They chant in call-and-response while snapping into military positions in perfect choreography.
Amid all of this, John Cusack has a sizable role as the preacher of black church. He’s seen on the streets comforting a grieving mother who’s just lost her child. Later at the funeral, he charismatically preaches a full length sermon. It is refreshing that this unlikely character is never a pot-shot at the church and its efforts in this volatile and broken community. Why a white preacher in a black church? My guess is that Spike Lee thinks that if it’s John Cusack delivering the message, more white people will listen.
(Since this review first posted at TwitchFilm, I’ve been told that “John Cusack’s character is based on a real preacher in Chicago who is one of the more prominent anti-gun violence advocates in the area.”)
And make no mistake, it’s about nothing but the message. To some Chi-Raq will be a confused, confrontational barrage. To others, it will ring true as a right, true and necessary anti-gun polemic, albeit the likes of which has never been seen or tried before. This is Spike Lee’s most visible, most high-wire presentation in years, and he’s determined not to waste the attention.
Lee is no less than the Jean-Luc Godard of today. Godard, that iconoclast provocateur, years ago cast aside cinematic form, that which he, as a key part of the French New Wave, worked so hard to forever challenge and change, in the interest of pursuing pure political provocation. Over the years, Godard has looped back around to both embracing and rejecting his cinema fixations, often at the same time. Lee, like Godard, takes a “by any means necessary” approach to messageering. (Heck, that phrase is right there on his production company’s logo!) Their career paths, public personas, and the controversy that they are keen to ignite, have undeniable similarities. With both artists, any new work arrives carrying the weight, stigma, and advantages of the creator’s legacy, personality, ego, and agenda.
In the interest of addressing the gun violence issue at its core, Chi-Raq glaringly, and to some degree, problematically, forsakes certain realities of sexual and gender politics. Simple assumptions rule the plot, as increasingly ridiculous as the sex strike aspect becomes. Is it truly 100% men who perpetuate gun violence? And if so, would a complete lack of female sexual companionship truly make them lay down their arms? Or would it just make everyone crazier, and more dangerous? Don’t look for subtlety, delicacy, or even anything resembling a nuanced logic, as the more you think about it, the stupider it sounds. But more to the point, the more you think about it, the more you think about it. And that is what Spike Lee must really want.
This is Spike Lee asking each viewer what it is that he or she needs for his message to sink in. A provocative plot that spans the globe? A full length sermon preached from the pulpit? Poetic rhyme and unusual dialogue? A famous, smiling narrator, pimping exposition? A whole lot of booty on display? Or the undeniable: Moms of slain children collectively holding up pictures of their fallen kids. It’s all here, in its screaming, muttering, Spike Lee mishmash glory. He’s shamelessly using every tactic at his disposal to guarantee that one way or another, you will hear the message.
Which is the point, and dare I say the only point. And, since Chi-Raq is so absurd, so thematically repetitive yet entirely unlike anything else, so hit-and-miss by design, you won’t forget the movie. And, since the movie is the message, it must, despite it’s internal incoherence, disjointedness, and myriad of stupid portions, it must be considered a highly unconventional success.