Sunday, December 06, 2015

Spike Lee's Chi-raq

                                                 From The Ramparts
                                                Junious Ricardo Stanton
                                                  Spike Lee's Chi-raq

            "Some people are getting it twisted and thinking Chi-raq is a comedy. Don't get it twisted, Chi-raq is not a comedy , Chi-raq is a satire and there is a difference between humor and comedy. In no way shape or form are we not respectful of the situation that is happening in Chi-raq. In no way, shape or form are we making light of the lives that have been murdered with this senseless violence. So people don't get it twisted, don't get it twisted, this film is about serious business. And there are many films that we can look at in the history of American cinema that treated very serious subject matter that had humor in them. There's an old statement 'I've got to laugh to keep from crying. Well I think that is apropos with Chi-raq don't get it twisted." Spike Lee filmmaker and director of Chi-raq

            I recommend you see Spike Lee's latest joint, Chi-raq. It is typical Spike Lee, he takes a subject, in this case Black on Black fratricide, and examines it from a multitude of angles using satire to bring his message home. Lee's film takes place in Chicago in a Southside section of the city that calls itself Chi-raq because it has devolved into a war zone where the whole neighborhood is caught between warring factions of two gangs the Spartans and Trojans.
            The ongoing war is taking a heavy toll on both the gang members and the community. The victims of the violence are both civilians and gang bangers. Civilians are shot dead and several gang bangers on both sides are crippled and maimed for life.  In Lee's film, a young girl is murdered when she gets caught in a cross fire between the Trojans and Spartans. Her mother played by Jennifer Holiday is devastated by her daughter's death. But Holiday's character is not the only parent suffering from the loss of their child's life. The senseless killings are a ravaging plague on the whole community.
            In the beginning of the film we see Samuel L. Jackson dressed to the gills, dapper like a modern day hustler/pimp/preacher playing the role of Dolmedes the narrator who sets the stage for the action by explaining the Greek origin of satire as social commentary.  In the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, the women deliberately withhold sex in a desperate means of protest and social change forcing the men to end the Peloponnesian War. In the film Chi-raq an actual modern version of this tactic used by Liberian women to prompt the end of the second Liberian Civil War from April 2003 to December 2003  is the model the films female characters use to put an end to the violence and killing that is ravaging their neighborhood.
            Samuel L. Jackson's character Dolmedes reappears throughout the film to give his take on what is to come and offer poetic commentary on the action of the females led by Lysistrata played by Teyonah Parris.  While the film is humorous and funny it is not a comedy. Lee uses what the Liberian women did to bring peace to their war torn country as the premise for a solution to ending the violence in Chicago; and by extension other cities and towns in America. Spike Lee pulls it off in a truly genius way using a dialog of constant rhyme (poetry),  dark toned camera shots and imagery to paint a gruesome picture of how poverty, violence, hopelessness and despair have set the tone and tenor of the neighborhood.
             Nick Cannon's character looks like Tupac Shakur. I don't know if this was intentional, knowing Spike Lee it probably was. Cannon's character whose "government name" is Demetrius is a dope smoking rapper and Spartan gang leader who goes by the name Chiraq. Wesley Snipes' character Cyclops is Chiraq's nemesis. He plays a one eyed gangsta, the head of the rival gang Trojans. While his character is a killer he is subject to a lot of one eyed jokes and disses by his own crew. The two gangs Trojans and Spartans (harking back to the Greek Peloponnesian War and the play Lysistrata) have a long running war that is taking a heavy toll on the entire neighborhood leaving too many innocent bystanders including babies in the cross fire.
            As usual Lee mixes numerous sub-plots: gang violence, poverty, social dysfunction, "culture", politics, apathy and powerlessness, activism and hope all brilliantly juxtaposed and blended within the parameters of violence, sex, economic class, emotional pain, personal and collective redemption.
             Lee is not a linear film maker so you'll have to pay close attention not only to the dialogue which is mostly in rhyme, but also remain alert to catch all the messages and subtle images in the scenery, subplots and personalities of the characters major and small. If you are not attentive you'll miss something and there is so much to see in this film you will probably have to watch it several times to get it all.
            Spike Lee's movies and documentaries always have a unique point of view, they make you think and ponder the subjects he presents. Chi-raq is no different. Early in the film one couple in the theater got up and left. Those of us who stayed to the end applauded when the film was over. If you are looking for mindless escapism Chi-raq is not the film for you. Chi-raq is a deep film, it examines a pervasive problem in our community but with the audacity to imagine that it can be solved.
            The film is not soapy or campy in any way.  It looks at the hood shows the carbuncles, the dirt, pain and pathology but also offers the potential for radical change. Angela Bassett's Miss Helen character is the catalyst who sparks the sex strike. After another young child is killed in the neighborhood, Nick Cannon's girlfriend Lysistrata played by Teyonah Parris house is firebombed by the rival gang. She becomes homeless and she seeks temporary refuge in the home of Angela Bassett's character who used to live in the Cabrini Green housing project, she lost her daughter to a drive by shooting but now lives in a nice home and is the neighborhood intellectual and moral compass.
             She takes Teyonah Parris' character in and lectures her about her relationship with Cannon character Chiraq. Bassett's home is filled with books and she encourages Parris to read while simultaneously pressing her to do something to stop the violence.
            I'm not going to share any more of the film's  plot or its twists and turns; I just encourage you to go see it.  While it is very funny at times it also tackles a myriad of serious and devastating problems in our community the least of which are: indifference, passivity, fear and learned helplessness.
            Spike Lee uses the medium of film to spark debate and action to solve very real problems devastating Black America! Chi-raq is a powerful film, one that does not shy away from tough subjects but it is done well in a way that makes you think outside the proverbial box for solutions; as far fetched as the one proposed by Lee.
            The interesting thing about Chi-raq is, the solution proposed in Lee's film is not new, it has actually been tried and it worked!



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