Spike Lee's Chi-Raq—was the only movie on my “must see” list the year it was released. I'd come to appreciate the artistry of Lee's productions not to mention the focus of this film. I was eager to see how he'd address it. Based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, Lee’s story is situated on the south side of modern-day Chicago where two fictional warring gangs are wreaking havoc in the lives of the community. The story's premise is that the senseless killing of a child sparks the neighborhood’s women into action. Like Lysistrata, the fictional woman of the ancient Greek play, the women of the community organize and pledge to withhold sex until their men agree to put down their guns.
The title - Chi-RAQ - sparked controversy because it brings attention to the real or perceived parallels between Iraq and Chicago. According to Spike Lee, before the film was released, Chicago's mayor Rahm Emanuel asked Lee to consider renaming the film - said he thought the negative image would impact commerce in the windy city. But Lee kept the name, claiming it is the name used by many who live on the south side.
Based on police dash cam videos, residents of that community may have good reason to draw parallels between Chicago and Iraq. They consistently express outrage over the treatment they receive from law enforcement alleging that Chicago's police department is used as an occupying force - one whose mission is far removed from protecting and serving. Chicago’s South Side, the backdrop of the movie provides Lee with a heckuva lot of issues — gun violence, certainly, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg that is the plethora of societal ills that find expression in the ’hood.
My interest was piqued when I saw Chi-Raq’s official trailer. It offered hints that Lee might tackle some of the underlying causes of the social problems that plague the urban cores of our cities. The trailer suggested that the sex strike premise might be used to fill seats while the film itself would incorporate storylines exploring deeper issues. I hoped that Lee's intent was to entertain while educating. If I was right, Lee’s movie could deepen the national conversation sparked by the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, which builds on movements dating back decades.
When the opening scene splashed across the wide screen, I knew entertainment seekers wouldn't be disappointed. Like every other Spike Lee movie, the visuals are compelling, artistic, and captivating. I have no doubt that as the final credits roll and viewers leave the theaters, many will be pleased. But for me, the film fell short.
In a nutshell, Chi-Raq is yet another film that puts the life-shattering consequences of unaddressed social ills on display apparently for no other reason than to entertain. By neglecting to include a storyline that illuminates root causes or draws parallels between this country’s racial and ethnic inequalities and the state of economic emergency we find in our cities, Lee leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions and it rests the responsibility for fixing these problems at the feet of the Black community. Yes, the film includes discussions of other inner city woes—out-of-control unemployment, overly policed neighborhoods, lack of education funding, the ravages left behind as a result of mass incarceration, and absent healthcare, for example—but those scenes seem tacked on, not integral to the main entertainment line.
Trailblazing professor and author bell hooks recently remarked that she was not happy with Twelve Years A Slave. hooks said, “As a black woman, when I see images like myself, abused, beaten, raped, tortured… I don’t feel entertained… If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman onscreen as long as I live, I’ll be happy.”
Like bell hooks, I don’t find misogyny entertaining. The commodifying of the female body sickens me. If I never see another gang-banging, hypermasculine, womanizing black man screwing a sister on screen, I’ll be happy. If I never see another black mother crying her eyes out because her child has been senselessly gunned down, I’ll be happy. If I don’t see another young brother gunned down over misplaced gang allegiance, I’ll be happy.
I am not arguing that these traumatic incidents don't occur. My argument is that Hollywood consistently falls short in its offerings of stories that center on the lives of people of color. All too often the story lines are narrowly written around "life in the hood" complete with gang subplots, drug culture, and baby mama drama. This fetishization of hood life tends to skew the perceptions many outsiders have about people they barely if ever come into contact with.
If these stories must be told, tell it all. These conditions don’t exist in a vacuum - the tragedy that is this nation's rotting urban core is a manifestation of social ill and lack of political will. The Chicago Reader ran a story that said, "People all over Chicago smoke pot—but almost everyone busted for it is black". Policies that go unchecked or are covered up produce disparate outcomes with the south side invariably getting the short end of the stick.
After seeing the film, I had a discussion with a black sister who had also seen it. She enjoyed the movie. When I told her that I had issues with several aspects of the story, especially the violence and misogyny, she responded, “Well, he only told what is really going on.”
I believe that her reaction will be common and is the main reason I have issues with the movie. I don’t argue that the lives portrayed in Chi-Raq aren’t being lived. My issue is that we consistently neglect to place these stories within a broader social and political context.
Until we couple these stories with stories that explore the root causes and offer real solutions, these kinds of movies don’t serve us. Without cogent explanations, we’ll continue to live in a society that lacks meaningful public discourse on the state of our cities. We simply make bad matters worse by subscribing to this type of “entertainment”—entertainment that does nothing more than normalize the insanity, and worse, solidify the notion that black life itself is pathological.
Publisher, LA Progressive