So once again we have survived.

Chi-Raq

tn_chiraqCHI-RAQ (Chicago + Iraq, pronounced shy-rack) is the Spikiest Spike Lee Joint achieved so far. It seems like whatever itch Lee was trying to scratch with those musical numbers in SCHOOL DAZE has been building up for all these years until it exploded onto the screen like that inflating dude in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Lee must’ve woke up one morning and said fuck it, I’m gonna make a movie that’s so Spike Lee it turns into Baz Luhrmann.

Let me tell you a few things about how heightened and crazy this is. It has musical numbers. It has dance numbers. It has a rap number that breaks into a gun fight precipitated by an argument depicted in onscreen text messages. It has an army of women in chastity belts performing a sexy choreographed group lip-synch to “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites (maybe my favorite scene). The two rival gangs wear purple and orange, and are called the Trojans and the Cyclops Spartans, whose leader is Cyclops (Wesley Snipes wearing a red-sequined eyepatch). There’s an explicit reference to THE WARRIORS so you know Spike knows what this reminds us of. (Also Luther himself, David Patrick Kelly, is in it.) All of this is presided over by a fourth-wall-breaking narrator played by Samuel L. Jackson wearing fly suits, spinning a cane and reciting toasts and dirty jokes like Dolemite. That’s not just me reading into it, because he’s called Dolmedes and he references Shine and the Signifying Monkey.

Oh, by the way: all of the other characters speak in rhyme also. So that’s pretty different from most movies.

Maybe that’s still not overblown enough you. Well, can I interest you in an overture? The entire impassioned theme song, “Pray 4 My City,” plays with the lyrics appearing a phrase at a time over black screen. The song bites Kanye’s style so hard I mistook it for him, but it’s actually Nick Cannon in character as rising Chicago rapper and gun battler Chi-Raq. (Apparently Kanye almost played the role, I wonder if he wrote the song – can’t find credits for it anywhere.)

mp_chiraqDespite this playful, cartoonish stylization, it’s also as angry and as preachy as Lee has ever been. Focusing primarily on the plague of black-on-black violence in Chicago, it’s a movie filled with onscreen statistics, rawly emotional funeral orations, marches with real mothers holding pictures of their deceased children, Jennifer Hudson playing a role made up entirely of grieving scenes. It has about the maximum number of topical references possible in a movie, including name checks of every high profile police shooting victim of recent years except I think maybe not the one recently covered up in Chicago. They also mention Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson and Dr. Ben Carson. It has discussions of gun law loopholes, systemically entrenched poverty, the legacy of racism in the south. It has a silly scene about the sexual fantasies of a white supremacist army officer that culminates in a gorgeous, cathartic shot of our heroine tearing the Confederate battle flag off of his wall.

In the Spike Lee tradition it’s also peppered with insert shots of murals and statues paying tribute to important African-American figures. One mural of Chicago natives includes Bernie Mac and Robin Harris, both gone-too-soon comedians that Lee had worked with. And you have your various returning Spike Lee cast members. Aside from Jackson, Snipes and Kelly you also have Angela Bassett (in the Mother Sister role) and of course Roger Guenveur Smith, playing two roles I believe (one of them on signs in the background). References to other Spike Lee works including ads for “The Bomb” malt liquor (see also BAMBOOZLED and SUCKER FREE CITY) and people (including Jackson) yelling “WAKE UP!” (including at the very end, like in SCHOOL DAZE).

All this makes for a fever dream portrait of a great city gone to shit in a proud country gone mad. The people of Chicago find themselves trapped between police they don’t trust and gangsters liable to send stray bullets into their living rooms. In one visceral scene a cop and a gangster stand side by side firing into the camera, like a one-upping of the opening credits of MAGNUM FORCE.

All that and there’s a plot too. It comes from Lysistrata, a Greek play written by “the Father of Comedy” Aristophanes, first performed in 411 BCE. This version is about what happens when Chi-raq’s legendarily hot girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE) convinces all the women to take a vow not to have sex with men until the gang war ends. It starts with the girlfriends of the gangs and spreads into a world wide “no peace, no pussy” protest, before culminating in a climactic, uh… climax battle. So all those other concerns are strung onto humor straight out of a goofy early ’70s sex farce. That sounds like a weird thing to mix with an angry plea to stop the violence, and it is, but I like weird. I reject the popular notion that unusual and audacious = automatically bad. I think the overall exaggerated and silly tone helps the medicine go down. Some of Lee’s movies (BAMBOOZLED in particular) have satirical premises but don’t go for laughs. This one does, and manages to be both heart-wrenching and fun to watch.

I’ve read several furiously negative reviews of the movie, some of them from Chicago natives. They say that Lee doesn’t understand Chicago and that he’s making light of real life violence. I’m not qualified to debate those points, but it does seem to me that they’re mostly just mad he got too artsy fartsy with it. Some people seem to be looking at an intentionally oblique, idiosyncratic artistic vision and demanding a normal, easily digestible movie that very seriously addresses every specific thing that is important to them in their personal experience and says things they agree with about it. If you think his way of getting the message across is tacky that’s understandable, but I don’t understand how they can honestly believe he’s trying to exploit the violence there and not preach against it. It means that they were so put off by the wackiness that they forgot the undeniably heavy-handed messaging that makes up so much of the running time.

mp_chiraqBAnd I also gotta feel like some people are taking the movie more literally than it’s intended. They might as well attack WEST SIDE STORY or ROMEO + JULIET’s accuracy in depicting gang culture. Come on, man, real gangsters don’t wear Hawaiian shirts. To suggest that this is Lee’s attempt to document authentic Chicago gang life is a hugely condescending way to smear one of our great filmmakers. Jesus christ. He’s kinda crazy sometimes but he’s not an idiot, he knew what he was doing there. Show some respect.

A more common complaint is that withholding sex to stop war would never work. Ya think? Again this seems beside the point. Of course Lee is not trying to lay out his plan for world peace, he’s just moving a very old story to a modern context to say something about our world. Shakespeare and Jane Austen stories don’t necessarily all translate to today either, but they can still have relevance between the cracks. No, if you don’t want to see a retelling of Lysistrata, then you won’t enjoy this retelling of Lysistrata. But maybe you should’ve thought of that when you went to a retelling of Lysistrata.

By the way, a comical sex strike didn’t stop the Peloponnesian War either. I think we can safely assume that Aristophanes was not trying to present a legitimate solution to the problem of violence back in the day and that Spike isn’t either. Give them that much credit.

The most damning sounding complaint I’ve seen is that it’s simplistic. Here is a passionate and personal review from a writer whose life has been touched by the violence in Chicago, and I respect her response to the movie and its basis in life experience. But at the end she theorizes why white people like me like CHI-RAQ:

“It absolves them of responsibility, placing the bulk of the blame squarely on the shoulders of those suffering the most. They don’t have to examine their complicity in a system designed to destroy black and brown people. With this film, Lee has given them permission to let themselves off the hook while wagging their fingers at our dysfunction.”

And I don’t think that’s fair to the movie. Yes, the character of Chi-raq ultimately takes personal responsibility for what he’s done. But while virtually every gang movie treats it as a matter of both sides putting the guns down and calling a truce (stop the violence, increase the peace), Lee is unwilling to leave it at that. The pie in the sky solution achieved by the sex strike involves the power structure coming together to make systemic changes, bringing jobs, economic stability and infrastructure to the neighborhood. Other related issues are discussed at length in sermons and conversations by Father Mike Corridan (who yes, is white [John Cusack], because Lee based him on a real Chicago preacher-activist who happened to be white). I really think the hypothetical white person in the above paragraph is getting something to think about here. Now he knows there’s more for us to do after Nick and Wesley agree to shake hands.

Lee has ended up pleasing a few crowds in his career, but he’s never hidden his arty side. His first movie was a sex comedy, but it was in black and white, had a jazz soundtrack, opened with a photo montage and featured a show-stopping modern dance sequence. CHI-RAQ is the end result of that guy refusing to compromise his style for nearly 30 years. I don’t think most people would like it, and that’s fair. Politically it’s provocative, and some people won’t agree with what it has to say. And it’s very stylized, so alot more people won’t agree with how it says it. Your average person, even your average Spike Lee fan, is not necessarily in the market for a rhyming message movie sex comedy musical with kind of a Julie Taymor meets PUTNEY SWOPE vibe. But if you’re like me – you like your freak flags flying double-high and want to see Lee’s voice and style cranked up louder than Radio Raheem’s boombox – you just might love it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
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37 Responses to “Chi-Raq”

  1. I may be incorrect, but I think the two gangs are called the Spartans (led by Chi-Raq) and the Trojans (led by Cyclops).

  2. Pretty sure you’re right. Thanks Matt.

  3. “A more common complaint is that withholding sex to stop war would never work. Ya think? Again this seems beside the point.”
    Sex strikes to curb violence are a thing that’s has happened and been succsesful. In Columbia in the 90’s the wives of gang members had one to try and stop the amoung of violence and it is credited with leading to a huge drop in the murder rate, in 2003 in Liberia women organised a sex strike and helped lead to the end of a 14 year long civil war. So it’s more likely then you’d think.

  4. The one in Liberia is mentioned in the movie and Lee has been bringing it up on talk shows. But I think it was one of the things that was done and not the specific thing that ended the war.

  5. That’s a pretty cool idea to adapt an ancient Greek play to a modern Chicago setting, wonder what ole Aristophanes would think of it.

  6. Chicagoland’s WGN news had an all black theater group from Chicago come in and talk about this film. With one exception (a guy who thought it was funny) they truly despised this film. They thought it was frivolous, exploitative, and poorly researched. Other than Jennifer Hudson being in it, they felt it felt in almost no way like actual Chicago. It didn’t help there have been a lot of notable gun deaths in Chicago and basically none of them were mentioned. One guy accused Lee of cashing in on their tragedy (this particular guy had two friends killed by guns in the last seven years), which I thought sounded really bad. Then the next guy led off by calling Lee a white supremacist!, largely for the reasons mentioned by the damning complaint you cited. So that was pretty shocking. And they universally thought the sex angle was ludicrous and distracting from the real pathos of the experience of being a Chicagoan.

  7. I guess you can sort of understand why people who are really close to such a continuing tragedy are hyper-sensitive about it and willing to cede no ground whatsoever to what they would consider frivolousness in art (or, arguably, the basic frivolousness of art). But jeez, that kind of hyperbolic orthodoxy is exactly the sort of thing which cripples the new left. When you’re accusing Spike Lee of being a white supremacist, you’ve given in to the absolute worst tendencies of activism towards reductive condemnation over actual progress. Here you’ve got an actual ambitious work of art trying to engage the public over a hugely important issue –and actually reaching people who might be able to do something– and you’ve got people furious at the artist because it’s not delivering exactly their message exactly the way they want it delivered. Talk about self-defeating! I’m a lifelong bleeding heart American liberal, almost to the level of parody, but even I’m getting sick of the increasing censorious tenor of a certain faction of the ideology. It’s mostly a loud minority, of course, but it sure seems like a lot of activists these days are more interested in controlling and sanctimoniously condemning the way people express themselves than they are in actually fixing the problems of the world.

    Like I said, I get it in this case, you live in Chicago, this is a very emotional issue, this is close to home, I don’t expect you to be objective about it. But anyone else, calm the fuck down, let one of America’s great artistic voices express himself in his own way. Maybe you don’t like the movie, maybe you don’t think it works, but morally condemning a work of art for expressing ideas in an unusual way is small-minded in the extreme.

  8. What Subtlety said.

  9. The Original Paul

    December 10th, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    I’ve got no stake in this one either way, but lemme point out to Subtlety and Curt that the people who said those things were from Chicago, according to Phillip. They’re the ones who are “close to home” as you put it.

  10. Right, and as I said, I get that, I don’t really fault them for being sensitive about it. I think they’re wrong, obviously, but it’s definitely possible to be too close to an issue to see the bigger picture. That’s natural, and I would be ashamed of myself for slandering people’s legitimate raw feelings on issues which are so painful.

    But it seems like a lot more people than just native Chicagoans got armchair-outraged over this one in a way which is self-serving and, I think, willfully ignorant about what is being attempted here. It’s in no way like actual Chicago? No shit, Snipes is wearing a sequined eye-patch. Are you only allowed to talk about issues via Maysles-style raw documentary footage? Hell, I think even if he did, the same people would find a way to be mad anyway. The liberal blog-o-sphere has gradually become just as insulated and dependent on reactionary phony outrage as its conservative counterpart. I don’t fault anyone for legitimately not liking the movie, or even for being too personally sensitive to this issue to be open to what Lee was trying to do here… but I guess I just don’t have any faith anymore that most of the haters here fall into that category. I hate the term “social justice warriors” –not least because it appallingly implies that would be a bad thing — but I have to admit there seems to be a cottage industry of self-congratulatory hurt feelings on the left which has hijacked important conversions and turned them into turf wars which make true believers feel good about themselves but ultimately undermine the dire need to have a mainstream discussion about genuinely important issues.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m just getting old and the progressive left is gradually passing me by, just like it did previous generations (remember, Charleton Heston was once a hero of the civil rights movement). The nature of culture is to evolve and leave behind those who can’t keep up; yesterday’s radical is tomorrow’s moderate, and today’s progressive is tomorrow’s reactionary. It’ll happen to me someday, and honestly, we’ll all be lucky if it does, because it’ll mean we’re moving in the right direction.

    But that having been said, the fact that one of the great American auteurs made a wild, crazy, angry, bold artistic statement about issues so topical, and it seems like the conservation is dominated by people –MY people– who think he shouldn’t have makes me unreasonably angry. Maybe the movie works, maybe it doesn’t, but to claim that artistic abstraction is an inappropriate way to deal with complex, real world issues goes against everything I believe about both art and activism, and I’m irritated that this point of view –which, again, I think is only supported by a tiny minority of people– is being allowed to so totally dominate our reaction to any work of art that somebody like Vern has to basically spend his entire review defending a movie against accusations that it’s morally wrong. I don’t want to silence anyone, even critics who I disagree with, but I think cannibalistic media environment, which feeds on controversy, does an enormous disservice to the world by enormously magnifying the voice of a radical few –on both the left and the right– and I think we’re fools to let it define the way we think about and interact with the issues of the day.

  11. The Original Paul

    December 11th, 2015 at 3:22 am

    Mr S – I will be brutally frank here – it sounds like you have a legitimate grievance against a vocal minority who have tried, and apparently succeeded, in dominating the conversation about art with their own bloody agenda. Ok… I get that, and I can empathise, at least in theory. Maybe not in practice because I haven’t run into these same people myself. I know it’s especially frustrating when you feel that these people are part of a group that you yourself count yourself as part of. So I get that.

    But again, being brutally frank, the big takeaway from your argument, for me as a British guy, was: “You have a progressive left? How endearingly quaint.” Think I’d rather have your situation than mine right now anyway.

  12. Mr. Subtlety said:

    “Sometimes I wonder if I’m just getting old and the progressive left is gradually passing me by, just like it did previous generations…. The nature of culture is to evolve and leave behind those who can’t keep up; yesterday’s radical is tomorrow’s moderate, and today’s progressive is tomorrow’s reactionary.”

    I disagree with this. Aging progressives do indeed often turn into reactionaries, but not due to the culture passing them up. For one thing, mainstream American culture has barely moved to the left at all in the past 50 years, so how could yesterday’s radicals have been left behind? I know plenty of older progressives, anarchists, and Wobblies who are clearly still further to the left than the average American, and their views have definitely not been rendered obsolete by changes in the culture.

    People can become disillusioned and embittered (it’s called class struggle because it’s difficult!), and often they eventually give up on their idealism and buy in to the mainstream thinking–usually they will call this “growing up” so they don’t have to admit to themselves what they’ve become. Claiming that such people have not changed their views, but were in fact were left behind by the culture, is demonstrably incorrect.

  13. Mike — well, it depends. In some case, I think the American culture clearly has swung leftward in the last 50, and hell, in the last 10 years, particularly on social issues. Who would have thought when I was growing up that gay marriage would one day be both universally the law of the land, contested only by a rapidly shrinking minority of marginalized weirdos? On other issues –labor, for example– obviously we’ve moved quite the opposite direction, so it’s complicated. Obviously it depends on the person and just what their original goals were. Yeah, a 75-year-old anarchist has not seen a lot of their agenda end up as mainstream conventional wisdom — however, a 1970’s feminist who advocated for greater equality in employment, pay, and family life arguably has, at least to a large degree.

    Of course, as the culture shifts, the conversation shifts as well. Cultural issues would have been basically unthinkable 100 years ago are now commonplace — and I hasten to add, I think that’s a good thing. But it also means that some people inevitably end up getting left behind as the conversation moves around them and the poles shift. Obviously it’s not always the case, because some issues move quicker and more radically than others, but I find it strange to claim that culture has been so static over the last 50 years that no new arguments and movements have emerged.

  14. Mr. S.:

    The past 10 years are the reason I think there has been any perceptible shift to the left at all since the 1960s or so. You are correct that some measurable, undeniable progress has been made on certain issues, but overall I remain unconvinced there has been much in the way of a really significant cultural shift. We’re all still wage slaves, after all, and on average, working more hours for less pay.

    I think I understand what you’re getting at, though. For example, an older male leftist with lingering misogynistic or homophobic views that were culturally common in his youth would now be behind the times when it comes to modern-day attitudes about feminism and LGBTQ rights. But holding such shitty views made him a hypocrite when he was young, too! Such views were never radical, and were not surpassed by a shifting culture. This kind of thing still exists, such as in the form of “Trans-Exclusivary Radical Feminists” (TERFs).

    Really, I guess there are just too many variables to think about when it comes to culture. There has been significant progress on some fronts since 1915 (and even 1970), but in other ways, we’re worse off. However, I am cautiously optimistic; thanks to the past decade, there is finally room to have a wider discussion about leftist issues, and people are in general more open to alternatives to the current system.

  15. I think I understand what y’all are saying here, but, man… there is some serious whitesplaining going on around here. I mean, jesus, Mr. S – black people who have had friends and family killed by gang violence in Chicago are are “being sensitive”? holy fuckin shit dude.

  16. I have to agree with Subtlety on this (I said much the same thing, less articulately, in the Green Inferno thread):

    “I hate the term “social justice warriors” –not least because it appallingly implies that would be a bad thing — but I have to admit there seems to be a cottage industry of self-congratulatory hurt feelings on the left which has hijacked important conversions and turned them into turf wars which make true believers feel good about themselves but ultimately undermine the dire need to have a mainstream discussion about genuinely important issues.”

    Cops beating, killing, and sexually harassing disenfranchised people–not cool. Dr. Dre beating up actual women–not cool. Oklahoma cop groping minority women because he can–not cool. Bill Cosby raping people–not cool. By all means, shine a light on these things and expose them for the not cool that they are, be they individual offenders who need some shaming or systemic issues that need our national (and perhaps legislative) attention. But condemning “It follows” for being “heteronormative” or Eminem for being a sociopath or Spike Lee for making a satire that tries (and succeeds!) to draw attention, catalyze discourse, and find meaning and humor in tragedy and absurdity? Wow, man. That really stifles people’s ability to be creative, curious, ask questions, and find/communicate meaning in metaphorical, aesthetic, and non-literal ways.

  17. The quote above is Subtlety’s, not mine.

  18. i don’t understand the impulse of mainly white people who aren’t from chicago to condescend to mainly black people who are from chicago, and have really been impacted by the violence there – it’s not an intellectual exercise in liberalism – by patronizingly explaining how it’s an “important film” and wondering whether they just don’t support abstract or ambitious art about subjects that are serious and important to them.

  19. What is your actual point vis a vis the film? trying giving people with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt. casually calling people patronizing or condescending or “whitesplaining” (or overtly dividing the competing opinions into “mostly white people who aren’t from chicago” and “mainly black people who are from chicago”) does little to advance the discussion. it marginalizes opinions other than your own, arouses defensiveness, and is not a substitute for an actual substantive point.

  20. My point is that we increasingly live in a climate where you have to watch your words or your likes or opinions very carefully, lest you be demonized (in this case, as a patronizing “whitesplainer”) rather than being treated as a flawed but possibly somewhat well-intentioned human being trying to engage an exchange of views. It’s fine for Spike Lee to say Quentin Tarantino is not allowed to use the n-word more x times or for Chance the Rapper to say Spike Lee is bad for doing a satire set in Chicago (or for you to say Subtlety as bad for defending the film): they are all big boys and entitled to their opinions, and controversy generally sells (or is a net plus for them, at least). but I have a knee jerk resistance to an implied “you can’t say or like that because it makes you a [such and such].” Except with transformers. if you like transformers you are morally reprehensible. #baysplaining

  21. I’m talking about passages like this:

    > it does seem to me that they’re mostly just mad he got too artsy fartsy with it. Some people seem to be looking at an intentionally oblique, idiosyncratic artistic vision and demanding a normal, easily digestible movie that very seriously addresses every specific thing that is important to them in their personal experience and says things they agree with about it. If you think his way of getting the message across is tacky that’s understandable, but I don’t understand how they can honestly believe he’s trying to exploit the violence there and not preach against it. It means that they were so put off by the wackiness that they forgot the undeniably heavy-handed messaging that makes up so much of the running time.

    Vern acknowledges that people from Chicago have legitimate gripes with the film, then speculates that “mostly” people are mad because “got too artsy fartsy with it”.

    Mr. S does the same thing, but calls it “hyper-sensitivity” and “hyperbolic orthodoxy” and says “you’ve got people furious at the artist because it’s not delivering exactly their message exactly the way they want it delivered”.

    I am not making a point about the film. I am making a point about the criticism of the film that was posted here and in the comments.

    I’m sorry, but don’t you see the absurdity in lecturing me about “giving people with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt” when you’ve read stuff like that and, I guess, agreed with it?

    It is OBVIOUSLY untrue that people who have a problem with the film do not understand art or are opposed to ambitious art. Some of the most vocal critics, like Chance the Rapper, are powerful, ambitious artists in their own right. That kind of absurd, reductivist dismissal of all criticism of the film is an example of what y’all are accusing the critics of doing – stifling discourse and shutting down conversations in favor of powerful voices.

    Amazon spent $15 million making and marketing this movie. Spike Lee goes on talk shows to promote it (where, by the way, he actually does promote the idea that “sex strikes” would solve real-life problems, and has seriously floated the idea that it would correct the issue of sexual assault on college campuses). Spike Lee and Amazon are in no danger of having their voices chilled. They are incredibly powerful people.

    It has been sold as an “important” movie that addresses the problem of gun violence in Chicago. Young people who live in Chicago and are affected by gun violence do not feel that the movie speaks to the problems they actually see in their real lives. In many cases, these are NOT powerful voices. Their voices are drowned out by the enormous voice of Spike Lee. They are frustrated that he is distracting from the real issue, and that he made a lot of money by selling a movie on the backs of victims of real violence. They are frustrated that he not only seems to believe seriously in the ideas of Lysistrata, but boasts in interviews that the film will “save lives”:

    Spike Lee says Chi-Raq will save lives on the south side—but can't say how

    The director took part in a Q&A at an Apple store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, but didn't provide a lot of answers.

    Then they try to talk about the problems they have with the film, and they are told by white film critics that they just don’t understand art. And I am not “overtly dividing the competing opinions into “mostly white people who aren’t from chicago” and “mainly black people who are from chicago”)”, I’m talking about the specific people who are writing and commenting here. And y’all are normally thoughtful and sensitive people whose opinions I respect, but in this case I think it’s absolutely unequivocally wrong to lecture people about why their criticisms of the film are incorrect, especially when the repeated refrain is “don’t you understand, it’s art”.

  22. I guess what I mean is, for example, if you read this Lil Bibby (one of the drill rappers who popularized the term “Chiraq”) interview, I think this is the kind of this that is being trivialized above as not understanding the artistic intent of the movie:

    http://www.thefader.com/2015/12/10/lil-bibby-spike-lee-chiraq-real

    But that isn’t really what he’s saying. There’s that one quote about how they should have done it like a documentary, and it gets spun out like that’s the whole substance of his problem. But it’s much deeper and more substantial than that – he says Spike Lee doesn’t even understand the basic mechanics of what he’s talking about, the culture of the people that the movie is ostensibly about. The corny “wake up” stuff is totally meaningless because the thing he wants people to “wake up” to is this horribly outdated idea about what gang violence is like from the late 80s and early 90s, it doesn’t exist any more. It’s just perpetuating incorrect stereotypes and mythology. It can’t fix anything because it doesn’t even know what it’s trying to fix.

    The issues may be topical, but Lee’s handling of them isn’t.

    Here’s NY Times writer Jason Harrington talking about the same thing:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/magazine/chi-raq-and-the-myth-of-chicago-gang-wars.html

    And then as far as the “sex strike” stuff, Ta-Nehisi Coates here does a good job explaining why it’s problematic:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/11/the-sex-strike-myth/417882/

    Regardless of whether Spike Lee intends this to be serious advice about stopping the problem (and all indications are that he does anyway), it unduly assigns the task of fixing the problem of violence to black women. There’s a follow-up with another troubling quote from Spike Lee on the subject:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/11/chi-raq-and-the-sex-strike-myth-contd/417924/

    These are all very legitimate concerns with the film. That’s why it seems callous and deeply off-putting to me to brush aside the concerns by claiming that it’s just a lack of understanding of the medium or artistic nuance or the use of satire.

  23. Manotaur — For the record, I specifically said, twice, that I can understand why people directly connected to the problems the film is addressing are upset that it doesn’t reflect the situation as they experience it. But I mean, I would think that would be true for anyone confronting art which deals with painful issues that hit close to home. (I do, perhaps unfairly, suspect that a lot of the angry people online are not so directly connected to this stuff and are just happy for a click-baity controversy, but perhaps I’m wrong about that). Everyone is going to experience life and art in their own context, and obviously the people who got offended by this one are absolutely entitled to their opinions, and I’m glad they’re giving them. It just seems to me that you’re gonna have the same result with any work of art that is seriously talking about touchy, painful, real-world topics. Chance –as I read his tweets, anyway– is saying that he finds Lee’s portrayal of these problems to be “goofy” and inauthentic, which is, of course, inarguable — its a flagrantly and openly goofy and inauthentic movie. He feels like it’s inappropriate for Lee to address the topic in this manner. He understands what Lee’s doing, he just thinks it’s morally suspect for Lee to speak out about this topic in the manner he does, especially as an outsider. (That’s how I read it, anyway — so yeah, I think Vern’s original description of the complaints (too “artsy” too “frivolous”) seems generally accurate. I guess there’s the idea of exploitation, too — but I don’t know how any artist not directly personally linked to an issue could avoid that charge if it’s being used so broadly. Or am I misunderstanding the points being made here?) I understand why he feels that way, but I think that’s a troublesome way to approach the idea of art in general. Shit, I’m sure there’s people who would feel the same way about HIS art.

    Lee, of course, hasn’t helped his case by talking so seriously about how important his movie is, how it will save lives, etc, which is obviously ridiculous on its face. So I hear what you’re saying, but I’ve also spent my whole life defending artists who make challenging, combative, morally complicated art, and it does get my dander up a little to hear people telling artists that they shouldn’t tackle certain topics, or if they do, they should do so only in very specific ways. I hope the people who were upset about Lee’s movie make their own art about it, and I’ll absolutely defend them in the exact same way. But it seems like there’s a dangerously censorious tenor to a lot –though of course, not ALL– of this criticism, the same kind of artistically stifling moral puritanism which I so object to in the far right as well. It troubles me, and it troubles me to see it coming from what I consider “my side” of the political divide. I think we probably need MORE speech, not less.

    But of course, you’re right, I don’t live there, I don’t know how it is. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about art and meaning, and so naturally that’s the way I approach this topic. You could argue my distance from the topic helps make me more objective, or that it makes my opinion basically meaningless, and completely insensitive to people who, unlike Lee and I, have some real skin in the game. I dunno. Obviously, CHI-RAQ isn’t going to save lives, nor does it present a workable strategy for fixing the problems it addresses. But does it have to in order to justify its existence? Can’t it just be –like most Lee movies are– one guy, working through a lot of shit on his mind, in the whatever way makes artistic (not political) sense to him? I hope so; it’s certainly what I’m trying to do right now.

  24. The Original Paul

    December 12th, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Subtlety:

    “Can’t it just be –like most Lee movies are– one guy, working through a lot of shit on his mind, in the whatever way makes artistic (not political) sense to him?”

    Y’see I agree with you in principle in terms of most of what you’ve said (although not the bit I just quoted), but I definitely agree with Manotaur on this specific example. And again, what I’m critiquing here is the reactions to the film, not the film itself, which I haven’t seen.

    I remember levelling some criticisms against ZERO DARK THIRTY regarding its use of way too much “Hollywood bullshit” in a film that explicitly, in both its marketing and throughout the movie itself, presented itself as “the story” – or to paraphrase, a definitive account – of the events that it’s based on. A lot of people here loved that film, and some of them accused me of being too harsh because it’s unfair to judge a two-hour adaptation of a long-term historic event by such high standards of realism. I think that they missed the point. What I was talking about – at its most basic – was a failure of the film to engage me. And that wasn’t a technical failure with the film – on a technical level it’s very good – but rather a failure of adapting a real event.

    Fast forward to CHI-RAQ, a movie that obviously failed to engage a lot of people who were part of the emotionally-charged events that it kind-of depicts. I guess I find it troubling to dismiss their concerns about the movie’s tone. If they went into the movie with certain expectations, and those expectations weren’t met, is that their fault for being unrealistic, or the movie’s fault for failing to engage them regardless? If my friends were dying because of an endemic problem of violence or poverty, and a film was made about it, I’d at least hope to see the situation represented fairly. To complain that it wasn’t – which seems to be the crux of the complaints here, including Chance’s – seems to be to be a legitimate complaint. I think at least that a lot of them are saying a lot more than “this director made the movie in a way that I don’t agree with”.

    To address that paragraph that I quoted from you above – movies don’t live in a vacuum. Art isn’t some kind of otherworldly entity that exists apart from all other social and political concerns. It reflects them and is affected by them. We tend to think of film criticism as some kind of timeless thing, looking at the objective merits of movies as self-contained works of art. It’s not always possible, or even desirable, for it to be that “clear-cut”.

    I totally agree with you about censoring art, by the way. I don’t want to start doing preaching to a director of Lee’s calibre about how to do his job. But by the same note, I don’t have any problem with people who were involved in the events depicted speaking up about that depiction, however fair they feel that it is. I think Vern addressed their criticisms best with this paragraph:

    And I don’t think that’s fair to the movie. Yes, the character of Chi-raq ultimately takes personal responsibility for what he’s done. But while virtually every gang movie treats it as a matter of both sides putting the guns down and calling a truce (stop the violence, increase the peace), Lee is unwilling to leave it at that. The pie in the sky solution achieved by the sex strike involves the power structure coming together to make systemic changes, bringing jobs, economic stability and infrastructure to the neighborhood. Other related issues are discussed at length in sermons and conversations by Father Mike Corridan (who yes, is white [John Cusack], because Lee based him on a real Chicago preacher-activist who happened to be white). I really think the hypothetical white person in the above paragraph is getting something to think about here. Now he knows there’s more for us to do after Nick and Wesley agree to shake hands.

  25. The Original Paul

    December 12th, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Oh, and I don’t want to just limit what I said above to “people directly affected by the violence in Chicago”. You can know about events, have an opinion about them, even be emotionally affected by them, without being directly involved in them.

    Of course, where there are people who are just trying to be censorious for the sake of making a political point, that’s a very different thing.

  26. Jeeze, Subtlety, the people I was talking about merely disagreed with you about whether this movie was successful in what it was trying to do. They never said you can’t make a movie about gun violence in Chicago; they just said this one was terrible. You don’t agree. Oh well. Not a big deal.

  27. Minotaur, I agree that people should not reductively dismiss criticism of the film. I think it’s fine for people to criticize a movie or think it’s offensive or any number of things. People are entitled to their feelings, especially Chicagoans in this case. Non-Chicagoans are also entitled to their feelings, and, of course, race and identity have a huge role in how any given person will respond to the film. I just don’t think the feelings of Chicagoans are normative in dictating anyone else’s feelings about the film, and I think in principle, things can push envelopes and offend people and that doesn’t make them bad or morally reprehensible. finally, calling people who defend such films “whitesplainers” is a subtle kind of race baiting trolling.

  28. Well, first I wanna say, I just reread what I wrote and I was being a total prick, I just want to apologize to y’all. I’m working on that kinda nonsense, but I’ll try harder not to be an asshole in the future.

    I guess what I have a problem with in this case is that Spike Lee is a much more powerful voice than anybody who’s criticizing him, and it feels like the movie could do something good, but the necessary conversations that need to happen – converting interest in activism toward the cause into true education and effective involvement – are being silenced by respected critical voices who are saying “don’t worry, there’s nothing to see here, these people just don’t get art”.

    And that anger at having a 58-year-old millionaire come to your city, make a movie about its violence problem that looks nothing like your city’s violence problem, and then tour the country telling everybody that it’s a realistic solution to what’s going on, honestly feels pretty important to. Spike Lee is a very influential national voice about this issue – if a bunch of people actually involved are saying no, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, it feels incredibly wrong to me as a white person to do anything to de-legitimize or mute that voice.

    I regret using that term “whitesplaining”, I wish I’d been less blithe or vitriolic; but these things are deeply troubling to me. I don’t think native Chicagoans are the only people who should be heard on the issue or that they have the ultimate authoritative voice. It’s just the tenor of the conversation that bothers me, the way it feels that white critics are (unintentionally I would say) lumping together and collectively dismissing all of the critical voices toward this movie.

    I do agree that a lot of criticism is wrong-headed and when it gets to the level of mass-media it’s diluted to pointlessness anyway (”
    Chance the Rapper Boycotts Chiraq!”) So maybe it’s not as big a deal as I think it is, I don’t know.

  29. The Original Paul

    December 12th, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Phillip – it’s fine, it’s an interesting topic for discussion at any rate. It’s kinda what we do here.

    Manotaur – it’s fine also. And I feel exactly the same way as you do over the response to those critical voices. Which is why I singled out Vern’s paragraph specifically addressing them – he answered the point that one particular critic was making, without making negative assumptions about her motivations or her “artistic intelligence” (if such a thing exists). I think that that’s the way to do it.

  30. My girlfriend and I caught this last Friday and were both rocked thoroughly. Really maybe my favorite I’ve seen this year alongside Fury Road and Bone Tomahawk

  31. Manotaur – I wasn’t offended by what you said, but I appreciate the polite apology. I tried not to do what you accused me of doing, but I accept the criticism. By calling myself unqualified to rebut those arguments I was trying to make it clear that the people I’m referring to know more about it than me and have a right to feel like their response to the movie is more authoritative. But I also admit that I do personally think that some of those arguments I’ve read are not fair readings or expectations of the movie and disrespectful to someone I think is a great and underappreciated filmmaker. I tried to say it respectfully, but it’s true, I disagree with the specific arguments I’m referring to. And I don’t mean it to be condescending or elitist but I truly believe a weird fucking movie like this cannot possibly be intended for a wide audience, that most people would not appreciate a movie like this on any topic and therefore it’s reasonable to suspect that some people want it to be something it’s not intended to be and hold it to unfair expectations. Especially when the criticisms they give of it (Chicago gangs aren’t like that) support the thesis. It’s kinda like when people saw THE AMERICAN and got mad that it didn’t have a bunch of car chases and shit, but more understandable because they’re not dummies, they just want to see a movie about Chicago that speaks to them and this is not it.

    And I still think that Lee is clearly passionate about bringing attention and solutions to the same problems that the people who hated the movie are. But I’ve seen many people not recognizing those intentions and accusing him of being some asshole carpetbagger.

    I guess it’s refreshing after all these years to try to defend Spike Lee from somebody besides white people who think he’s too angry and all his movies are about race. I used to dread his name ever coming up on Ain’t It Cool. In fact, I was expecting another commenter was gonna come after me from a whole different angle and that I was gonna get really pissed off about it. This is more constructive.

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t dig my hole deeper here, and thank you for your honest criticisms and links, I do appreciate them.

  32. p.s. And in my defense maybe it’s fair to whitesplain in the specific instance when I’m quoting someone assigning motives to white people who liked CHI-RAQ and I happen to be a white person who liked CHI-RAQ and might have some firsthand insights on the topic. But otherwise I would hope to avoid it. And I am totally open to being Chicagsplained to.

  33. I’d also like to jump on the apology train, first off for my original post here, which is obviously a frustrated venting rant at a general tenor of conversation online, not so much a direct response to this particular conversation, even though I foolishly phrased it as if it was. Frankly I thought this thread was dying a quiet death, and would be as good a place as any to try to work through some of my irritation at the overall political media landscape. But I’m happy to have been called out on it because it’s really made me think about this particular case a lot more.

    I think the whole things comes down to if the art here is fundamentally about the issue or the artist. If it’s about the issue, Chance and a lot of other critics make good points. Is Lee from Chicago, or does he have firsthand experience with this issue? No. Does he offer an actionable solution? No. Does he depict the issue in a realistic way? No.

    Given all that, I think it’s fair to say, “So, what the fuck does this movie do to fix anything?”

    On the other hand, if the art is about the artist, that’s not really a meaningful question to ask, because the only thing it needs to be is an expression of the artist’s own thought process. All Lee owes anyone is to try and use his gifts as an artist to give us a look into his own brain as he tries to wrap it around these issues. Obviously this is the side I come down on; art, even political art, is still art first and last. I don’t think it’s feasible to ask art to be logical or realistic or present a realistic solution. On occasion it does, but that’s not its primary purpose and not its primary success. That’s why we have political discourse, not art. Of course, Lee hasn’t helped himself much by talking so much shit publicly about how important the movie is, and, ridiculously, pretending the “sex strike” is a meaningful real-world solution. I’m used to being a Spike Lee fan, so I know you just have to take everything he says with a very large grain of salt. But I doubt the people he’s talking about are feeling so charitable to him, and he’s got no one but himself to blame for that.

    But one thing I do think Minotaur correctly raises is that I’m glad that the people who are affected by this issue are getting their say. I don’t agree with them about what the movie should be doing, but Lee has definitely said enough publicly about how this movie is going to save civilization that I think they were right to call him out on it a little. While I’m glad Lee made this movie because I’m glad for every movie he makes, I can definitely understand peoples’ frustration that this silly musical comedy made by an outsider is, for the moment anyway, the defining statement on an issue which is very important to them. It bugs me when they suggest he was morally wrong to MAKE it, but I’m extremely glad it won’t end up the final word on the subject, and for that reason it’s great that people are speaking out and, hopefully, trying to articulate their own experiences and perspective.

    And, crucially, the power balance between them does make me feel a little weird about defending Lee, who I agree isn’t really in any danger of actually having his voice silenced. I ultimately agree with him, which is fine on a website where we talk about movies, but if you actually put my in a room with Chance and told me to argue with him about why he’s wrong about the movie, there’s no question I’d feel like a total prick. So obviously it’s complicated — but balancing different perspectives and priorities is exactly what we gotta get better at as a society, so maybe that was Lee’s secret goal all along.

  34. Likewise, sorry for being overly combative or any trolling of my own. Good dialogue here.

  35. I got an email from Tawdry, for some reason his comments are not posting but he sent me some stuff he wrote about CHI-RAQ. So until I figure out what’s up with that here’s what he tried to post.

    THIS IS TAWDRY HEPBURN HERE, NOT ME:
    ——————–
    I just saw this movie last night. There were 6 people in the audience: an interracial couple; a confused-looking elderly white man; a pair of 30-somethings whose ethnicity I couldn’t gauge; and me. I was the only one laughing at the parts that were intended to be funny.

    There is so much going on in this movie, and so much I love about this movie. The scene where the random shooters from the first scene come back and explain – in detail – the horrific repercussions of their opening gun battle. The full-length sermon from Cusack. The surrealism of Samuel L. Jackson’s entire presence. The final revelation about Chi-Raq’s father. The heist of the governmental building. The moment when the bumping and grinding turns into an elaborate synchronized dance in the club. And many, many more.

    But my gawd, Lee should not have final cut on anything! I could literally make this movie 15% better by loading it into friggin iMovie and cutting the heads and tails off of shots. There are SO many moments in this film that just, straight up do not belong in the movie. I’m not talking scenes or beats. I’m talking about empty space and time at the beginning of individual shots. Not extended scene-intro shots, but individual shots in the *middle* of scenes.

    There is SO much excess in this film that when you have what should be a moving scene (Like Jennifer Hudson washing her child’s blood off the asphalt for over 2 minutes), the overall impact is blunted because all of the surrounding elements and scenes are also way-too-long.

    More disturbingly… the movie ostensibly denies the existence of rape. The women do take to wearing chastity belts, but before that moment, there is no acknowledgement of men using force. The women don’t even bring it up as a potential risk of this plan. Rape simply doesn’t exist in this world. While I might forgive this from another filmmaker, Lee has a long and storied history of misogyny that makes this hard to accept.

    And of course there is the complete and total removal of LGBTQIA voices from the narrative. Other than one brief comment from a self-described ‘Dyke’ and a legitimately-funny beat about men on the Down-Low, the movie is explicitly about hetero-unions. Sex workers get more notice and attention and gay men are overtly positioned as women and/or sex workers. I suppose that Lee could be making an argument akin to Dworkin (ie, all heterosexual sex is rape and homosexual sex exists in a different, more pure plane), but I sincerely doubt it.

    I’m really glad I saw this movie and that I saw it in a theater, but it’s massively flawed. It’s tragic because the last 15 minutes are searing and as good as anything Lee has ever produced.

    TOTALLY UNRELATED NERD NOTE:

    One thing the movie gets right — it has some of the best use of green screen that I have ever seen in a low-budget movie. If you’re paying attention, you might notice that most of Cusack’s sermon and all of SLJ’s scenes are filmed in front of green screen. Major props to Matthew Libatique for his superb cinematography. The lighting matches up perfectly.

  36. First and foremost, I must say I am not much of a Spike Lee fan. I liked “Do The Right Thing” and a couple of others, but for the most part he has always been a bit too preachy for my tastes.

    But, I am a huge fan of weird movies. The weirder the wilder the more outlandish…the better. And from Vern’s review…this sounds like one heck of a weird movie!

    So, my excitement for this movie just grew 10 fold. I checked if the movie is playing anywhere near me. For the first time in over two decades, I am excited about a Spike Lee Joint. If at all possible, I will see it in the theater.

    And that right there I think is the strength. I want to see some wild The Wiz meets Jodoworski brilliant abomination. I would see that regardless of director or subject matter.

    But because I am seeing it…and even more so because I am actually excited about it…I am going to get Lee’s message. And it might spark some of the proper thought, “Am I doing enough” or what have you.

    If Lee handled it more straightforward, I would have no interest. Be

  37. Got cut off there, but I was pretty much done…

    Because Lee chose such an outlandish approach I have renewed interest in his work and his message.

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