The final image of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq—an adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata named the best film of 2015 by venerated critics like Amy Nicholson (formerly of the LA Weekly) and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody—is a shot of the city of Chicago’s flag bearing the words “WAKE UP.” It’s unclear, though, what exactly we’re supposed to wake up from: our culture’s complacency concerning inner-city gun violence, or the illusion that such violence, often committed by African-Americans against other African-Americans, isn’t deeply connected to America’s racist legacy. Unfortunately, what one becomes most conscious of is the largely evasive way Lee portrays this ecosystem of denial and neglect. At a historical moment that requires more hard truths than soothing delusions, Chi-Raq and its author seem like preening tourists who—to paraphrase Gil-Scott Heron’s legendary verse about NAACP director Roy Wilkins—stroll through black Chicago in a red, black, and green liberation jumpsuit they’ve been saving for just the proper occasion.
Chi-Raq is clearly meant to be fantasy, depicting a sex strike by the women of the South Side of Chicago that successfully ends a scourge of gun violence in the Second City and inspires corporations to reign down full employment in ghettos everywhere. But this is a dangerous fantasy, and a shameful one, too: it refuses to acknowledge the real stakes of its narrative, cheapening the cost of black sovereignty and dignity in the face of this country’s many failings. Unlike The Hateful Eight, which, in its post-intermission flashback, makes clear that the disregard for black female life and property is at the root of its revisionist Reconstruction narrative, Chi-Raq withholds the violence against black female bodies that is at the heart of its outrage. Lacking the seriousness of intent to contain such verisimilitude, Lee’s film is too busy dreaming of a world that never was, one that simply makes a mockery of our own.
Teyonah Parris, of Dear White People, plays Lysistrata as a gang leader’s mistreated girlfriend who masterminds the strike after holing up with a stern middle-aged neighbor played by Angela Bassett, a strident black intellectual with no TV, a wall full of books, and—like the movie as a whole—sanctimony to burn. Shortly after she becomes homeless and is almost murdered by gang members seeking to assassinate her boyfriend—the gang-leader Chi-Raq, played by Nick Cannon—Parris’s Lysistrata realizes, in the movie’s blundering narrative logic, that she and her sisters can use their sexuality to change the world. Bassett’s character hips Lysistrata to Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian villager who in 2003 led a sex strike to bring attention to the violence that threatened her country. Of course, by the time Gbowee accepted the Nobel Prize, she owned up to the fact that the sex strike wasn’t effective politics, but simply a publicity stunt in support of effective politics. Lee refuses his characters the intelligence to make the distinction. Instead, Chi-Raq takes the act of a sex strike seriously as a political one, without ever examining the ramifications.
From the mid 1980s to the early 2000s, Lee’s movies were among the only places in the pop-cultural landscape where multinational corporations invested in narratives about issues of concern to black Americans—issues most non-black Americans treated with very little seriousness: the threat of police brutality and gentrification upon already vulnerable black communities (Do The Right Thing), the necessities and impossibilities to black nationalism (Malcolm X), and the persistent encroachment of white cultural appropriation on traditionally black forms (Mo’ Better Blues). Now, in his return to corporate-sponsored filmmaking on something resembling the scale he was once accustomed to, he has turned his attention to inner-city gun violence. Clockers dealt with the burdens of such violence too, of course, but it exists in a world that resembles our own in ways Chi-Raq isn’t much interested in—Richard Price is a realist in a way Aristophanes never hoped to be.
While it’s clearly not a work of realism, Chi-Raq is nonetheless very firmly, from its first frame to its last, situated in the political and material present. Although Lee called the new film “heightened reality” on Charlie Rose recently, he was quick to disavow any serious consideration of his own film’s ideas, saying “The whole sex strike thing is really a metaphor; in no way, shape, or form are we suggesting the way to stop gun violence in Chicago is to have a sex strike.” This isn’t fair play. Chi-Raq remains unsure of whether it wants to be a polemic or not, and remains coy about what more “realistic” politics its sex strike is intended to symbolize or stand in for. It suggests, very loudly, that it has something important to say, using Lee’s familiar Brechtian bag of tricks to do so. Just what that something is remains obscure to most observers, even its most ardent supporters. I simply did not encounter the “comprehensive view of the society-wide reforms surrounding guns and gun violence on which constructive local changes would depend,” Richard Brody claims to have found in the film. They aren’t there, nor should they be.
Lee has a special burden placed on him among many African-Americans to get it right, to be a voice of reason in an American motion picture world that has often marginalized the talents of African-American film artists and the reach of their films. But an equally troubling byproduct has come to the fore with his most recent releases, that the occasion of each new “joint” becomes a conduit for white critics to exercise their complete ignorance of African-American communities, and the people and psychologies that live within them, when trying to analyze Lee’s mid-to-late career follies. All that seemingly thoughtful Afro-centrism, all those beautiful black bodies gyrating through space in immaculately coiffed hair and costumes that seem like they may have come from the sequel to the Sun-Ra freakout Space is the Place, got the better of the pallid, work-a-day film reviewers. How cool it all is, this hell we’re living in.
Working with a real budget and She Hate Me DP Matthew Labatique for the first time since 2006’s Inside Man, Chi-Raq has a seductive look and feel; from its opening overture of Nick Cannon rapping (“I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq”), the lyrics emblazoned on the screen before crescendoing over an American flag made up entirely from guns, one gets the sense the film is meant more for arousal than reflection. The movie isn’t in control of its tone, exposition, or much else however, beyond its ability to titillate. The title characters have just been immersed in a bloody shootout at a South Side nightclub, one in which a member of Chi-Raq’s gang was killed, but both seem nonplussed or otherwise distracted from the desire for kinkily filmed bump and grind once they get home. The prurient, candy-colored tracking shots that follow Mrs. Parris’ behind, as she sashays down graffiti-covered and tree-lined streets, are equally tone-deaf and cheaply salacious.
Although the film tells us from the top that “This is a State of Emergency,” Mr. Lee has picked a false “emergency” to hip us to. As Jason Harrington pointed out recently while responding to the film in the New York Times, gangs are no longer the cause of much gun violence in the Chicago neighborhoods where Chi-Raq was shot. Personal beefs—often over the smallest of things, which loom larger when society has cast you into degradation and poverty—rule the day among the underemployed and greatly marginalized. Even as a purely narrative invention, the rivalry between the gangs at the film’s heart is drawn in the thinnest of ways; never does the movie seek to explain why the men, young and middle-aged, are shooting at each other. The idea of adapting Lysistrata to this environment proves to be a strained one from the conceptual stage alone.
This confusion shouldn’t surprise us. Since around the time the towers fell, the universe of Spike Lee’s narrative movies has grown curious, one that requires the extended and uncomfortable suspension of disbelief. As his films have become increasingly untethered from reality, or an aesthetically satisfying or intellectually edifying departure from it, so to have his opinions about how to better it. See, for example, his recent comments about campus rape: “What’s happening on college campuses today, you know, what happened at the University of Missouri where the football players got together and said unless the president resigned they weren’t going to play, I think that a sex-strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rape,” Lee told Stephen Colbert in the run up to the film’s release, dressed head-to-toe in the black, green, and red Chi-Raq swag he’s been peddling on Twitter. One gets the sense that this “State of Emergency” is as much a call to help out Lee’s flailing box-office returns or merchandise sell-off as it is to end the violence.
One misses the Spike Lee who once peddled Malcolm X hats and Nikes—the director has always been a savvy self-marketer. It’s no small irony, then, that the costumes Lysistrata’s militant sex-strikers wear—black-and-grey tankinis, boots and pants, with dark berets—recall the uniforms of the Black Panther Party, which advocated for greater armament in the black community, if not outright insurrection against its oppressors.
That organization, one Lee has been a public admirer of, was made up of young blacks, barely of legal drinking age, who had promoted the public display of weaponry as a means of liberating themselves from the threat of systemic oppression through police intimidation and violence. Should they too not have had such an opportunity to defend themselves? A dozen years after the Party’s federally orchestrated demise, a new generation of black men came of age with the misguided intention—fed at the trough of an American nightmare—to arm themselves just as fast as they could, often using lethal force in disputes over what scraps of a poorly paying illicit drug market they could dominate. But the legacy of the Panthers could still be felt in the era of Lee’s ascendance as a filmmaker. The political arguments of the Panthers were more effectively used by the reactionary forces of the American gun lobby than on behalf of the following generation of imperiled black men, a third of whom would wind up in prison or worse.
The Mulford Act, signed by then California governor Ronald Reagan in 1967, disarmed the Panthers, an organization that, despite their guns and revolutionary rhetoric, was doing identifiable good within the black community in the spaces of health care, child hunger, and education. Carrying guns is a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will,” Reagan said upon passage of the law. Of course, implicit in that comment is that the “problems” the Panthers were confronting by being publicly armed were with antagonists who were acting in good will, which, as the violent history of COINTELPRO shows, could not be further from the truth.
The resurgent and increasingly belligerent NRA of the late 1970s, once an organization that had spearheaded sensible gun regulations, was inspired in its efforts to combat new gun control laws using the Panther’s argument for firearms as a means of personal, and public, self-defense in an era of increasing crime and untrustworthy law enforcement. In 1980, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in the organization’s hundred years of existence. That candidate was Ronald Reagan. Since signing Don Mulford’s anti-Black Panther gun legislation, his ideas about guns had changed considerably. The Second Amendment “leaves little, if any, leeway for the gun control advocate,” Reagan suggested after becoming President. “The right of the citizen to keep and bear arms must not be infringed if liberty in America is to survive.”
Meanwhile, the drug market thrived in spaces where little other economic opportunity was being encouraged, be it by the state or private individuals of means. The “nunchucks, clackers, and kitchen knives” that young men engaging in street disputes relied on in the early ’60’s Harlem of Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World, or the Cabrini Green of Michael Schultz’s Cooley High, were replaced by tools of the utmost lethality all over the country in the deregulation-crazed ’80s. Those movies weren’t hits, however. Death Wish and Superfly were.
Chi-Raq’s ideas about what in fact should be done about gun violence remain opaque throughout. Lee, always a Brechtian, punctuates his Chicago gangland sex comedy with overlong scenes of sanctimonious direct address from Samuel L Jackson’s snappily dressed Dolamides, the film’s Greek chorus (and a subtle nod to Rudy Ray Moore’s blaxploitation character Dolemite). His haphazard commentary on life in a dangerous ghetto, where neither your neighbors nor the police are to be trusted, is like that of every other under-realized character in Lee’s dangerous fable, essentially a mouthpiece for the director. Yet Jackson doesn’t offer any perspective that, as a Greek chorus should, allows the tale to resonate from the merely provincial to the universal, nor does it clarify the film’s themes—other than suggesting that living without sex, or amidst gun violence, is hard.
The structuring absences that allow this to pass are gaps you could drive a Buick through. Where are the scenes of organizing prostitutes, housewives, baby mommas? We get a quick scene of negotiation between female members of the rival gangs, the purple-hued Spartans and orange-tinted Trojans, that begins with a call for “peace and hair grease.” A club of “respectable” black ladies, led by Bassett, does eventually take part in the strike too, but Lee never shows us how that affects the rhythm of daily life or the tenor of their relationships. All we get are a couple of intercut scenes of Parris and her Trojan counterpart jilting their gang-member boyfriends. What of the women who would surely be beaten and brutalized due to such a campaign? Would solidarity hold? Would the violence really stop? Would women all over the world, in places with no apparent gun violence such as Copenhagen and Tokyo, also join the sex strike?
Of course not. But in the absurd version of the South Side Lee has conjured, magical realist solutions for black America’s burdens are a dime a dozen. A place where 411 murders took place in 2015 and the median income (as Cusack’s Michael Pflager-inspired preacher didactically reminds us, mid-eulogy, in one of the film’s oddest scenes) is $12,000 a year, the South Side of Chicago deserves a more thoughtful and aesthetically honest exploration of its woes. Yet Lee abandons any sort of honest attempt at depicting how protests movements live and die, thrive or flounder, for Hollywood grandstanding—as when a group of mostly disempowered, poor black women storm the Illinois State Armory and find they have no problem subduing its guards, who all end up stripped and bound, before the movie forgets about them. Run by a conspicuously Southern-sounding white codger (played by David Patrick Kelly from The Warriors) who, at the mere hint of sex with an attractive black woman, strips down to his Confederate flag diapers and mounts and ebony cannon in his office, one is left to assume imbecilic bigots normally run state armories in the midwest.
The film’s profound confusion only grows from there. If it is a satire, as Mr. Lee has said, it knows not what it aims to satirize. Chi-Raq seems to take with the utmost seriousness, in its stated plea for us to “wake up,” the idea that the ongoing standoff must be settled not by a bloody SWAT team raid, but an organized “sex bout.” Staged at the site of an ongoing hostage situation and televised with full support of the local government (the mayor, played by D.B. Sweeney, wants to get back to intercourse with his black wife, who is also striking), Chi-Raq and Lysistrata get it on in front of everyone, both in the armory and at home. Whoever reaches orgasm first in the Illinois State Armory “sex-off” is the loser. The fate of Chicago’s black community hangs in the balance. At some point toward the middle of the sequence, when we finally get the signature Spike Lee dolly shot, I’m pretty sure all the head-scratching I’d done had resulted in a rash.
When defending himself, whether on Meet the Press or black radio, Lee has made much of the non-actors from Chicago, including many victims of gun violence, who are in the film. Why would they be in a film, he angrily intones, that doesn’t treat their pain with the utmost care and seriousness? Probably because no one else but Spike Lee can convince white billionaires and the blinkered indie film execs who represent them to finance an eight-figure, star-laden movie about gun violence in black Chicago. But just because one has the privilege to speak to a major national crisis with expensive public art doesn’t mean that it is any good. The one memorable non-actor in the film, a wheelchair bound ex-gang member who talks to Cannon’s title character while he sulks over some purple drink, offers the only moment of gravity and genuine feeling in the whole phony thing, talking about the perils of gang life from what you know is clearly first-hand experience; it makes Lee’s actors look even worse. Before the moment can really breathe, though, Lee cuts awkwardly away from it. In its place? A montage of the elevated train circling into the loop that, beyond being a cinematic non-sequitur, if I’ve ever seen one, could come straight out of a promotional ad for the chic inter-loop Chicago that no one ever thinks of as “Chi-Raq.”
It’s a moment that illustrates how Chi-Raq is afraid of the power it contains, how it never transcends the infantilized, opportunistic, and irresponsible measure it takes of Chicago’s ongoing nightmare. It represents the profound disconnect between the black leadership class, one Lee is very much a part of, and the people living in America’s most dangerous urban districts. Topical but not wise, Chi-Raq is the moment where Lee, recent recipient of an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, has gone the full Kayne: maximum spectacle, minimum coherence.
Brandon Harris is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film at SUNY Purchase, a Contributing Editor at Filmmaker Magazine and an Associate Programmer of the Aspen ShortsFest. He has written about film, politics and their inevitable intersections for The New Yorker, The New Republic, VICE, The Daily Beast, and n+1. His memoir, Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, is forthcoming from Amistad.