It is never easy to articulate an initial response to a Spike Lee film. His films are not conducive to the formulaic "Did you like it or not?" question. A Spike Lee "joint" can be overwhelming, frustrating, hilarious, trenchant, unfinished, and haunting.
In opposition to most of the films produced by the Hollywood machine, Lee's works leave fans and detractors with lingering tensions and frictions - and occasionally a glaring silence. I experienced this last fall when I taught Lee's early works in my race and film class.
After teaching Do the Right Thing (1989) during the second week of class (and juxtaposing the police choke hold, and killing, of the character Radio Raheem with the image of Eric Garner being choked to death by officers), I was disappointed by my inability to spark a vibrant conversation about the film. Students seemed uninterested and unmoved. Later in the course, as students began to get more comfortable, they confessed that a film like Do the Right Thing was "too much" to handle. The scenes, dialogues, themes, and format of the film incited a kind of discomfort, a protracted moment of silence that reminds us that certain experiences cannot immediately find the words for normal expression.
Lee's new film, Chi-Raq, might not be "likable" but it definitely follows his previous films as it prompts viewers to think critically about unresolved tensions and problems in the film and the broader social world. Inspired by Aristophanes' play Lysistrata and taking the form of a musical satire, Chi-Raq centers around a group of women who refrain from having sex with their boyfriends as an incentive to end the cyclical gang violence.
Through satire, the film plays on racial and gender stereotypes while drawing attention to America's internal wars, the all too familiar deaths and losses experienced in cities like Chicago. There is much in the film that both fascinates and disappoints; I am particularly interested in three aspects that pertain to the film and its critics: the complexity of representation, the use of the term Chi-Raq, and the theme of salvation in the film.
One criticism that has been directed toward the film, especially by Chicago natives, is that it is exploitative; it turns the complicated, and serious, realities of Chicago into a satire and musical. Some have even questioned Lee's authority to speak about the city - he is an outsider and does not have intimate knowledge of the city's problems. What is interesting is how the concern about the inappropriateness of satire resembles Lee's dismissal of Quentin Tarantino's 2012 film, Django Unchained.
In one interview, Lee revealed that he would not see Django because it would be disrespectful to his ancestors. He suggested that part of the disrespect lies in Tarantino's decision to turn slavery into a spaghetti western. In other words, Lee suggests that the western cannot properly represent the horrors of slavery in the same way that critics of Chi-Raq claim that a musical, or Greek comedy, fails to capture Chicago's present circumstances. This brings up important questions about representation and genre that we should be talking about. What would a proper cinematic depiction of Chicago look like? Is the supposed disconnect between the musical genre, or Greek comedy, and the "reality" of violence part of the film's satire and parody? Does the gap between genre and content get at the complexities of the present moment? Who gets to represent a community and what counts as a proper, or improper, depiction?
Another source of contention is the use of term "Chi-Raq." In a provocative article recently written by Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation, the author accuses Lee of uncritically adopting this term from Chicago rappers, a term that naturalizes violence in Iraq and denies America's involvement in creating that violence. Smith rightly points out that the beginning of the film compares the numbers of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan to deaths in Chicago without mentioning deaths of Iraqis or Afghans. While I agree with much of Smith's analysis, he leaves out some things.
For one, there is a long legacy (beyond Chief Keef ) in hip hop culture of invoking Middle Eastern places as signifiers of violence and zones of war. Think for instance of Capone and Noreaga's 1997 album War Report where Lefrak City, Queens is referred to as Iraq. When hip hop artists make these connections and analogies, they don't simply naturalize war in the Middle East. They also show the continuities between violence elsewhere and violence at home, a tactic that troubles notions of American exceptionalism and that links local and global expressions of violence and suffering. Lee's Chi-Raq gestures toward these connections in the beginning of the film as we are shown an image of America composed of guns pointing in all directions. Guns are pointing beyond the borders of the U.S. suggesting that the production and consumption of weapons in this country has global effects. And the fact that the women in the film, led by Lysistrata (played by Teyonah Parris), take over an armory shows that any understanding of "war" in Chicago would have to include a re-evaluation of militarism and empire.
The final aspect of the film that stands out is the theme of salvation. Recall that Spike Lee has said that he expects the film to save lives in Chicago. Throughout the film, there is a persistent concern about saving the lives of children, protecting them from the senseless bloodshed. The church plays a significant role in the film as Father Mike Corrigan (played by John Cusack and inspired by Father Michael Pfleger) gives a powerful sermon during a funeral that connects gun violence to poverty and inequality. Yet one of the most memorable scenes that pertains to salvation is the final one. Chi-raq (played by Nick Cannon) is escorted by police officers in handcuffs down a gauntlet of community mothers. He has just confessed to killing a young girl by accident.
After Chi-raq reminds the crowd that he is not the only murderer present, the viewer gets a sense that the film is playing on the scapegoat metaphor. Perhaps this scene is part of the satire, a critique of our tendency to direct blame toward individuals and shield ourselves from the problems and tensions that we share. If we can just get rid of the Chi-Raqs (communities and individuals), we will be rescued from the violence that plagues our social world. We will be cleansed of the dirt and blood that the social order produces. On my reading, this kind of convenient fantasy is what the film exposes and challenges through parody and satire.