Spike Lee’s new film was a missed opportunity
CHICAGO — Spike Lee’s new movie “Chi-Raq” is not the place to look for answers to the conundrum of how to quell gun violence in Chicago.
This was to be expected — no Hollywood filmmaker should be burdened with the expectation of fixing our societal ills.
But putting them in a larger context — maybe even creating an artistic work of entertainment that could lend new vitality to an old, still unresolved, conversation? Well, that also proved to be too lofty an ambition. “Chi-Raq,” it turns out, merely drags viewers through a lengthy lampoon of some Chicagoans’ real-life horror stories. It was a missed opportunity.
Opening with a heart-rending musical plea for a stop to Chicago’s murders and powerful calls to action — “Please pray for my city,” “This is an emergency,” “7,365 murders in Chicago, surpassing the death toll in Iraq” — the film quickly devolves into a painful parody.
Its premise is a take on Chicago’s urban warfare through the device of a rhyming-dialogue re-telling of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the satire in which the Peloponnesian Wars were ended when the women of Greece agreed to freeze their husbands and boyfriends out of the bedroom.
“Chi-Raq,” however, fails in being either wholly thought-provoking or entertaining. The female protagonists are overly sexualized, and the bad guys are stereotypically cool as ice. Moreover, the film shifts confusingly from real statistics about actual dead African-Americans in Chicago to a silly scene where a rebel-flag-loving old white man humps a Civil War-era cannon in a city armory.
Are we really to wonder whether the city’s violence might have been instigated by radical Confederate sympathizers who have infiltrated the famously Democratic bastion of Chicago to oppress its dark-skinned citizens?
Or, as the movie suggests over and over again, are the real culprits the black people themselves — both the ones that commit the black-on-black crime and those who refuse to “snitch” on each other to the police?
I can’t say, because “Chi-Raq” was so all-over-the-place in tone, in plot progression and in blending details of reality with outrageous fantasy — like the last-minute relinquishment of power by a murderous gang lord because he’s actually just a nice guy — that it was nearly impossible to know what the director, whose previous work I’m a fan of, meant to communicate.
But don’t take my word for it.
The night before its nationwide release I attended a screening of “Chi-Raq” a mere 19 miles from the Englewood community, where the film is largely set, with people who actually live in the violence, dysfunction and misery this movie exploits. And some of them weren’t terribly happy with what they saw, either.
“I know Hollywood wants to entertain us but I don’t want to be depicted like that, with all that tomfoolery, laughing, joking,” said Charles Hardwick, who directs an education and employment program at the Howard Area Community Center and introduced himself during a panel discussion as having spent 14 years in prison. He added that he’d recently witnessed a gang shooting up close at a community resource fair. “If I could write to Spike Lee, I’d tell him I don’t want to be represented like that.”
Alex Smith Hickman, a poet, young father and alumnus of the city’s Family Matters organization, which provides safe spaces to the North of Howard neighborhood said, “From an aesthetic point of view, it was visually pleasing, but the message … I don’t feel it should be conveyed to everyone like it’s funny. I heard a lot of laughing and I don’t feel that burglary, murder, gang violence is funny. There were a lot of things I agreed with, like we have to come together and talk about it, but there were just so many contradictions and not a lot of understanding the meaning of the violence. Or how actual problem-solving can help in communities, and mentoring, and other things we could be talking about.”
Talk was a major theme among six individuals who live on Chicago’s brutal streets and shared their experiences during the discussion after the screening of “Chi-Raq.” All seemed to agree that more talk about this epidemic, even around a flawed attempt at illumination, was helpful.
Maybe. But if we spent even half the time listening to real people who live and work in urban poverty and violence that we do watching fictional or sensationalized news accounts of the bloodshed, we might actually get closer to fixing it.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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