Chi-raq is 2015’s “Doing Too Much” not its “Do the Right Thing”.

Posted on December 14, 2015

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spike-lee-lifetime-achievement-oscarSeven years ago around this time, we had just elected a black president. I remember the buzz in the air that lasted long after election night. Everyone was trying to figure out the new world we were in, and just happy to have lived to see it.  That year I ended up over my best friend’s house on the weekend after NYE to watch the Rose Bowl.  I don’t remember anything about the game, except for that before the end of the 1st quarter the announcer pointed out the black head referee and said, “This is the first black man to be head referee at the Rose Bowl”.  My boy and I looked at each other for second, serious screw faces and heads cocked sideways, then we burst out laughing.  Full belly laughs.  Not that we thought the first black referee at the Rose Bowl was a joke, just that all “first black” (or any black) accomplishments now paled in comparison to what we had just accomplished just weeks earlier.  We had moved on in the last few months before that football game, where our goal posts for what we considered success and black historical relevance had changed. The same has happened to the art of black filmmaking.

This is the post Barack Obama, world that we live in.  This is the post Ava Duvurnay, Ryan Coogler, F Gary Gray, Antoin Fuqua world that Spike Lee has brought his new movie Chi-Raq into. No, black people are not proportionately represented in American cinema, but Spike Lee Joint releases aren’t the once every few years’ phenomenon that we are required to support because we don’t know when and where we will get another chance to enjoy the black perspective on the silver screen.  When I expressed my distaste for the previews, I literally had people write me and tell me that we live in a strange world where people would actually judge a Spike Lee movie harshly from the previews. People said they missed the days when people supported Spike for being Spike. What those defenders don’t understand is that this is progress.

Fortunately I saw this with Vanessa, who has spent her academic career learning about and defending black art. Otherwise this review might be harsher than it needs to be. There are parts of this movie that are down right horrible, and to describe this horror writers take hyperbole and personal attacks to completely unnecessary levels. Vanessa and I discussed this movie at length, in tones that would sound to some like arguments, but was really just a fervent attempt to get to the bottom of the mess we had just seen.  She insisted that the movie must’ve have been good on some level because on several occasions she was brought to tears. After discussing it, we realized those moments were whenever the dead children of Chicago were brought into the story.  “You didn’t like the movie Vanessa, you just have a heart. Dead babies are supposed to make good people cry”.  She looked at me so flabbergasted, and then upset, and then laughing, because it was true.  Her overall praise of the movie is that Spike tried.  There is something to be said for that.  More to be said for that in 1987 than in 2015, but something we can’t gloss over either.  We have to learn to temper and focus our criticisms in an attempt to be helpful.

In art integration classes I’ve been taught to use the Praise-Question-Polish form of feedback. Say something you like, something you don’t understand and something you would like to see tweeked to make it better.  I will now attempt to do that for this movie, but I am keeping in mind that Spike is a grown-ass-man and I shouldn’t hold back the truth for the feelings of him and his followers (because much of this movie was simply unsalvageable).

This film was a bad attempt at intersectionality. I did love things about this movie, the things we always love about Spike movies. The layers of visual and musical blackness that he heaps into the cinematography, choreography and sound track of this movie was great. Spike Lee Joints make you proud to be black, from both the overt images, and the times you notice coptic crosses or Kemetic symbolism in the background and realize that he comes from the same “black conscious” circles you do.  This praise falls under the “he tried” category, and that category is important.  But that is almost the only credit this film gets.

First off, very few people are in the mood for a sarcastic or satirical take on the violence in Chicago. You can’t yell at the audience when they simply are not in the mood for your joke.  Spike would have been better off creating this film about a completely fictional place.  People are willing to deal with the reality of Chicago, what we didn’t want is a “good verse bad hair” rendition of this incredibly serious subject. Spike defenders are berating his audience for not being in a joking mood about violence in Chicago, as if we owe Spike our sense of humor whenever he asks for it. Besides, saying “it’s satire” is not a get-out-of-being-written-badly free card.  There are moments in some Spike Lee movies where he is just a conscious Tyler Perry. His stuff is written poorly, but he is making a point that us RBG’s like, so we dismiss the sophomoric writing and juvenile plot twists. In Chi-raq, that was his motif throughout.  Way too simple explanations to way too complex situations played out over black stereotypes.

Secondly, the acting was actually done really well, but it felt like the actors hadn’t been given the same tone for the movie, and therefore ended up looking like they were acting in 4 to 6 different movies.  There is serious acting, then there’s satirical acting, then there is overly dramatic acting, and between each scene and each character that acting was anywhere along the spectrum.  Teyonah Paris was great, she played her role like a lady Black Dynamite.  Not sure if that was the right tone, but it was completely different than the Boys in the Hood performance that both Angela Basset and Nick Cannon gave, which was way off the mark from the “Don’t Be a Menace…” take on his role that Wesley Snipes had.  There is a way to modernize classical plays with modern themes. The Coen Bros “Brother Where Art Thou” is exhibit A.  Chi-raq (even with Samuel L. Jackson’s spot on channelling of Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemides) misses horribly.

Next, the main moral male character, and most important soliloquy in the movie, should not have been given to a white character.  In my conversations with Vanessa, this is the point she could not forgive. Given that, for all intents and purposes, Vanessa’s mother is in many ways like the Rev Flegler that Spike Lee’s priest is based on, I was surprised that she was so adamantly against that part of the movie. It repulsed her, and dried up any tears she had developed grieving with Jennifer Hudson’s character over her child.  We both agreed that there was a place for the white character, fully invested in the black community, to have crucial roles in this tale.  Maybe either the conversation with the striking women or meeting with Nick Cannon’s character (not both). Maybe he could’ve stood up and said something profound to introduce the character who would give that little girl’s eulogy. But the character giving the eulogy should’ve been based on, and played by, someone black.  A Reverend Wright stand in would’ve been perfect.  The line “We must stop this self inflicted genocide”, in a rambling speech that never once said a thing about the baby being eulogized, should not have been delivered by a white actor doing a black preacher impersonation. Spike knew this was controversial. He has his responses to the criticism of that character prepared. It still doesn’t excuse it. We can give A’s for effort while admitting that you swung and missed.

Next, it is completely disrespectful to introduce Leymah Gbowee to the African American community as if the sex strike she was a part of was the crux of her movement.  The sex strike she was a part of was a side show, not the thing that won her the Nobel Prize.  They couldn’t even find footage of Ms. Gbowee bigging-up the sex strike to use in the film (they used another Liberian woman) because that footage didn’t exist. It was a publicity stunt, the same way it was a publicity stunt for this movie.  Spike has said in several interviews that this is a legitimate technique, and has introduced Ms. Gbowee to a new audience in a completely distorted way in an attempt to sell a poorly written movie. That is not cool.  Much has been said about Spike reducing women down to their vaginas.  Vanessa and I didn’t have a problem with exploring the primal nature of male/female relationships, but to do so, that should have been the main focus of the film.  No matter what the women were striking over, once the strike involved the symbiotic sexual relationship of men and women, that should have been what we delved into. 

Though Spike thinks this was an homage to the profound power women have in our community, I cringed when the striking women met in a room adorned with murals to great black women.  All the women painted on the walls deserved their own movie, and the retelling of their contribution to our struggle. None of their struggles equated to using their vagina as leverage though, and equating those women to this poorly thought out scheme was not reverential, but instead dismissive of the complexity of the black woman’s contribution to our struggle.  I love angry black woman, especially when I’m not the one who made them angry.  Give me one Harriet Tubman, two Fannie Lou Hamer’s and a Shirley Chisolm over any all male chapter of the Black Panther Party any day. The easiest contemporary comparison of the power of black women on black socio-political issues is the Black Lives Matter movement, and that movement (though led by women) is not led by women’s sexuality.  It doesn’t help that we are fresh off of the Daniel Holtzclaw trial, and the reduction of women to their lady parts is an even more sensitive subject right now.  You can pick the wrong time to tell a joke.  Even if the joke is told well (and this time it wasn’t) this is the wrong time and the wrong way to reduce women’s roles.

Even the oath that the women took made me roll my eyes.  It’s notable that a movie ostensibly about the vagina’s power over black men, did not have a person with a vagina writing any of the women parts.  I personally know a half dozen women writers who would have written a much better oath. It would have been raunchier and classier at the same damn time. The writing and choreography on these parts did not make me feel the weight that women swing in my community, it made me analyze the psychology of the men bringing this production to light.  I wasn’t thinking about the complex interplay of sexuality and politics when 20 middle aged men used their “keys” to break into an armory of 60 younger than 30 year-old women and demand their god given pussy.  I was instead reminded of all the other times Spike Lee tripped over romantic and relationship themes in movies like “She Hate Me” and “Girl 6”.   

This movie doesn’t follow in the footstep of “Do the Right Thing”.  It should have easily been called “Doing too Much”.  To not spoil the ending (and not give myself a headache) I will spare you from my breakdown of the ending of the movie.  Just know that it was bad.  High school play bad.  “I just learned about sex, just learned about politics and i’ve written something combining the two and produced it with an eight figure budget” bad. Spike is from a different era, and doesn’t understand that you don’t have to get every socio-political thought into every film opportunity you have. Some of this stuff was simply for Facebook and twitter rants.

Spike Lee is still one of our Black National artistic treasures.  His Spikisms were still perfect for “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo Betta Blues”.  “Crooklyn” still holds a special place in my heart, and “Malcolm X” is still probably the most important movie I saw in my youth (despite the fact that the more I learn about Malcolm, the more disturbed I am by the concessions Spike made in his story in order to make a film out of it).  “Bamboozled” was just as ham-fisted and indelicate as Chir-aq, but on a different topic in a different time period, so many of us feel differently about it. Chi-raq sucked.  It was obvious from the previews.  All these things are true.  I didn’t leave the theater wanting to talk about Chicago, I wanted to talk about Spike Lee’s take on Chicago. As a conversational piece, it failed.  We have progressed as a black art community when we can recognize all these realities at once.