Unseriously, take my city: “Chi-Raq”
directed by Spike Lee
written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott
acted by Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson
presented by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
running time: 127 minutes
By Bill Stamets
Turn yourself in if you shoot a child in Chicago and no one on the street tells the police what they saw. That’s the takeaway from “Chi-Raq,” Spike Lee’s misfiring R-rated 124-minute public service announcement. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” reads a red letter alert on a black background.
You might decide his first shot-in-Chicago film also shows us: satire doesn’t heal a city, citizens do. Lee’s scattershot directing and character-building fail to realize his urban sociologizing and black-on-black scolding.
“Chi-Raq” opens with a promising rap number titled “Pray 4 My City” performed and co-penned by Nick Cannon. Lyrics appear on the screen, less like subtitles, more like a sing-a-long with upper-cased emphases: “Please PRAY for my city… Too much HATE in my city… Dey DIE every day in my city… And y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago. But I don’t live in no fuckin’ Chicago, boy. I live in Chi-Raq.”
After gunfire erupts at Da End Up club on North Milwaukee Avenue where her boyfriend Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) is on stage rapping. After his gang rival Cyclops (Wesley Snipes wearing an eyepatch) torches the apartment where she is making nasty love to Chi-Raq later that night. And after an 11-year-old girl is shot in a gang drive-by. That is when Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to do something.
Lysistrata’s book-loving flatscreen-lacking neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), tells her to Google Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian sex-strike activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner credited with ending a civil war in her country. That tactic might work on the south side of Chicago, figures Lysistrata, who’s never heard of her namesake in the title of a bawdy Greek play by Aristophanes.
The original Lysistrata organizes the women of Athens and Sparta to stop making love to the men of Athens and Sparta in order to stop them from making war. “If only we may stir so amorous a feeling among the men that they stand firm as sticks, we shall indeed deserve the name of peace-makers among the Greeks,” she proclaims. “It is much to be regretted that the phallus element should be so conspicuous in this play,” annotated barrister-at-law turned Aristophanes translator Benjamin Bickley Rogers in a 1911 London edition of “Lysistrata.”
The contemporary Lysistrata convinces women of color to quit sex with members of the Spartans and Trojans until these two Chicago gangs cease shooting. Montages of television news clips display women marching in solidarity around the world: in Athens, Brooklyn, Istanbul, Lahore, Montreal, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere. As if those women seek ending gang gunfire in their cities too.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the fly Dolmedes, no doubt getting the highest per capita cut of the costume budget. Addressing the camera, this strutting old-school sage kicks off his running commentary by explaining why his patter and the lines of other characters will rhyme: “In Da year 411 BC, before Baby Jesus Y’all, Da Greek Aristophanes penned a Play satirizin’ his DAY. And in the style of his Time, ‘Stophanes made dat Shit Rhyme He footnotes Aristophanes back in the day of 411 BC. and decodes “BC” as “before Baby Jesus Y’all.” (This is the way Lee reproduces the dialogue in the film’s press notes.)
“Chi-Raq” co-screenwriters Lee and Kevin Willmott depart from Aristophanes by adding these direct addresses to the audience. That’s “parabasis” Y’all. In the most disconcerting instance, Dolmedes is flanked by a black gangbanger and a white cop. Both fire countless rounds at the audience. In the original play actors hurled no spears through the fourth wall.
Aristophanic touches appear in the end credits of in “Chi-Raq.” Bit players are named Althea, Apollo, Hecuba, Oedipus, Olympia, Pindar and Tereus. Aristophanes likewise christens members of his chorus with “fancy names,” as classicists call them. Two characters in Lee’s film meet at a coffee shop– not located in Greek Town– named the Deux Ex Machina. Englewood vernacular replaces the Attic and Doric dialect used by Aristophanes.
Lee’s “No peace, No Piece” slogan sounds like Aristophanes’ “No more money, no more war” when Lysistrata leads women to occupy the Acropolis and deny menfolk its treasury to fund warfare. Lee’s counterpart is the Illinois Army National Guard armory on South Cottage Grove Avenue– where in World War II the University of Chicago processed and stored uranium for the Manhattan Project. I doubt Lee could secure access at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on South LaSalle Street.
Deploying “Lysistrata” for anti-war agendas long after the Peloponnesian War is not new. Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company, part of the Federal Theatre Project, staged a “Lysistrata” adaptation set in Africa. After one performance on September 17, 1937, the Works Progress Administration closed the play. Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson described a July 2013 staging of “Lysistrata” that was “framed as an entertainment for and by American soldiers, posted in a place where the U.S. is embroiled in a long, bloody war (Iraq? Afghanistan?).”
“Iambic hexameter verse is integrated with rap-style couplets,” reported Berson. Lee’s rhetorical device of choice is chiasmus, a signifying-style trope used in African-American slave narratives and rap.
The Lysistrata Project, launched in 2003 by two actresses in New York City, coordinated public readings of “Lysistrata” in 59 countries to protest the Iraq war. A 2004 spin-off staged in Cairo was set in Baghdad. Women occupy the Ministry of Oil, standing in for the Acropolis, and deny their husbands intercourse until Iraq and the U.S. declare peace.
“Chi-Raq”– advertised as a “searing satire of gun violence in America”– is not Lee’s first foray into satire. He opens “Bamboozled” with Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an African-American Harvard-educated television producer, articulating a 36-word dictionary definition of “satire.” He delivers this voiceover while brushing his teeth and shaving his head, on his way to work at the offices of Continental Network System (CNS) in Manhattan.
New Line Cinema’s press notes list this 2000 film as a “blistering satire” and a “biting satire” based on a “searingly satirical script.” Lee acknowledges “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) and “Network” (1976) as precursors of his sharp critique of the mass culture industry in New York City. The DVD repositions “Bamboozled” as a “searing parody of American television.”
Frustrated he cannot air authentic African-American fare, Delacroix schemes to get fired. It’s the only way he can get out of his CNS contract. He pitches a purposefully offensive minstrel series featuring blacks in blackface in a watermelon patch. CNS senior vice president Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) loves it.
“Our aim is to destroy these stereotypes,” Delacroix tells his incredulous assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith). “The good Reverend Martin Luther King did not enjoy seeing his people beaten on the six o’clock news. However, white Americans needed to see that in order to move this country to change. They need to see this show for that exact same reason.”
The scheme backfires in a big way. America loves the retro show. In repurposed news video, President Bill Clinton is at his desk in the Oval Office watching the premiere. He claps and says, “I like this.” Delacroix’s career takes off. Black activists picket CNS.
Sloan’s brother, Big Blak Africa (Mos Def), belongs to the Mau Mau cell of militants who respell “black”– per “ole slave owner Webster”– as “blak.” Lee here seems to recycle the name of a 1950’s Puerto Rican gang in Brooklyn borrowing from the 1950’s uprising in Kenya. “Right here in Harlem, in New York City, we need a Mau Mau,” declared Malcolm X in a 1964 rally for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Lee frames the Mau Mau’s as gun-toting fools swigging 64-ouncers of Da Bomb Malt Liquor advertised on Delacroix’s show. They kidnap his Juilliard-trained tap-dancing star Manray (Savion Glover) and threaten to execute him on the internet. A court order lets networks air a live “Dance of Death” feed at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Black-on-black killings in the film’s climax are tragic, not comic. Even if Delacroix’s exit line is “Keep them laughing.”
Lee ends one draft of his “Bamboozled” screenplay (an extra on the DVD) with different dialogue. “My God, what have I done?!” Delacroix gasps in his dying breath. “CUT TO: ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF MALCOLM X. MALCOLM X: You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray. Run amok. You’ve been bamboozled.” Those lines come from a speech Lee scripted for Denzel Washington in the title role “Malcolm X” (1992). Barack Obama worked Lee’s lines into speeches while campaigning in South Carolina in 2008.
Delacroix’s fatal failure to manipulate the white-owned media turns “Bamboozled” into a cautionary tale about satire as a tactic. “Chi-Raq” reprises those risks as political entertainment. Lee’s co-writer Kevin Willmott earlier scored mixed success in two satires with hooks to African-American history.
Willmott scripted and directed “Destination: Planet Negro!” (2013), which received its world premiere at the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago. In 1939 black scientists propose solving the “Negro Problem” by rocketing to Mars. A time warp diverts their spaceship and a baffled trio (Willmott plays one of the voyagers) lands on the outskirts of contemporary Kansas City. President Obama, baggy pants and the use of “nigga” all inspire satiric commentary.
More successful is “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America,” a faux documentary Willmott wrote and directed in 2004 that’s billed as a Spike Lee Production. Its counterfactual conceit is the South won the War of Northern Aggression. Slavery is unabolished. The premise is reminiscent of “It Happened Here,” a 1964 film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo positing a German occupation of Britain in 1944.
“The following program is of foreign origin,” states an opening disclaimer for “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America,” as it’s broadcast “uncensored” by fictional Channel 6 Confederate Television in San Francisco. “The content does not reflect the view of this station and may be unsuitable for children and servants. Viewer Discretion is advised.”
Willmott’s make-believe BBC documentary satirizes many PBS tropes. Archival photos show the Confederate flag raised at Iwo Jima and planted on the moon. There’s a sepia clip from a 1915 D.W. Griffith epic titled “The Hunt for Dishonest Abe.” A TV sports clip shows a pro football team named the New York Niggers. Willmott inserts TV ads for the Slave Shopping Network and the weekday afternoon show Better Homes & Plantations.
Calibrating tone and target is a challenge for satirists. In “Bamboozled” Lee aligns with anti-CNS picketers Rev. Al Sharpton and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. appearing as themselves, while mocking the Mau Mau’s for their tactics and the way they dress and speak. Lee’s 1996 drama “Get on the Bus” listens to a busload of a dozen Los Angeles men heading to The Million Man March in Washington, D.C. An end credit declares the film’s independence from the white media bedeviling “Bamboozled”: “This film was completely funded by 15 African American Men.” “Why is it that white people still control what gets on the air?” wonder Wayans in “Bamboozled”’s press kit.
“This could all be a setup,” riffs Mike (Steve White). “This could be like a conspiracy, man… This could be like the trains into Dachua and Auschwitz… this is some apocalypso type shit about to happen maybe man.” The unprecedented assembly of African-American manhood could be a target of opportunity for some crazed white official with his thumb on a thermonuclear trigger. Mike’s slight smile and jokey tone imply he’s not really serious about all this. It’s a knowing nod by Lee to paranoid theories heard on talk radio.
Other socio-political opinions in Lee’s work fall less clearly under the rubric of teasing satire. When is Lee ridiculing the rhetoric voiced by one of his characters, and when is Lee ventriloquizing through another character as his mouthpiece with zero irony or parody? Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character in “Chi-Raq” modeled on Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Church, refers to black-on-black crime as “self-inflicted genocide.” At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lee used that same phrase when interviewed by Deadline Hollywood: “I would just be irresponsible as a filmmaker to not comment on this self-inflicted genocide, which is happening.”
Would Tel Aviv cops ever phrase Jew-on-Jew homicide like that? The ill-chosen line recalls how a white detective in “Clockers” refers to the black housing project in his Brooklyn precinct as a “self-cleaning oven.” That 1995 film by Lee is unambiguously not a satire.
“Three places you’re going to end up: county morgue, or county hospital or county jail,” Father Corridan counsels Chi-Raq. “People downtown don’t give a fuck about you… It’s privatized now to capitalize… You’re hanging from a tree. You’re not even costin’ them money. You making them money, and nobody’s going to hear your bitchin’ because this is the new legal form of lynching.” If Lee thinks it’s nonsense to say tax-funded agencies in Cook County are capitalist enterprises making profits off the misery of the black man, “Chi-Raq” inflects those lines with no undertone or overtone of satire. On the contrary, an end credit honors Father Pfleger as a “Spiritual Advisor/ Consultant” for “Chi-Raq.”
When Lysistrata’s sexual boycott succeeds, is Lee caricaturing Chicago activists, like the Mau Mau’s in “Bamboozled”? Or thinking wishfully? “We the United Federation of Gangsters for the State of Drillinois decree: Every Fortune 500 country has signed the peace accord, ensuring that every person in the hoods of America of employment age is guaranteed a job, and I don’t mean no minimum wage either. New hospitals and mental health facilities will be built by the United States Government. And finally, there’ll be a much needed trauma center on Chicago’s south side. Lysistrata, this is what justice looks like.” The plot at this point forgets her original goal of peace between two Englewood gangs.
No one can accuse “Chi-Raq” of taking gangs seriously. Or “organizations,” as they prefer. By contrast, “Clockers” offers ethnographic detail on the day-to-day economics of street dealing. Turf pride and drug profit do not matter in 2015, or they’re deemed unfit for either satire or more serious treatment. A nihilist implication is nothing is at stake. Lee and Willmott do not dignify the Spartans and Trojans with motives. After Lysistrata “shut down the penis power grid,” the men of Englewood are reduced to their dicks.
Why do they shoot each other? What causes this black man to kill that black man? I think the only gang-related death occurring in the film’s time frame is due to bad aim, an off-camera shooting of 11-year-old Patti. “Niggas can’t shoot so babies get WHACKED,” testifies Cannon in “Pray 4 My City.” At least “Chi-Raq” is conscientious about portraying the public rites for mourning and memorializing victims. Lee casts local family members for non-speaking roles, and beautifully recreates terribly sad events based on news reports.
A Spike Lee Joint, as this filmmaker likes to label his works, typically contains black history lessons scored with eloquent orchestral arrangements. “Bamboozled” is especially diligent in documenting blackface minstrelsy and cooning in popular culture. Elder characters often raise the consciousness of unschooled characters, as Miss Helen does with Lysistrata. Miss Helen presides over a neighborhood meeting place called the House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda, named after a Harlem bookstore frequented by Malcolm X.
But “Chi-Raq” teaches little. Selective statistics compare American death tolls in Chicago and Iraq.
Most still photos of the local dead seen in marches and funeral services are authentic. For the opening montage in “Clockers,” crime scenes are staged, as Lee explained to a BBC site: “To do that sequence we recreated real homicide photographs.” His first shot is an forensic close-up of a bloody entry wound. These are the corpses of young black males. Lee opens another film set in New York City, “Jungle Fever” (1991), with an onscreen text: “In memory of Yusuf K. Hawkins,” a 16-year-old African-American shot by whites on August 23, 1989.
Ancient lore relates Dionysius I of Syracuse wanted to know how politics worked in Athens, so Plato sent the tyrant the work of Aristophanes. Unsurprisingly, the once topical playwright does not afford Lee a handle on the city that likes to call itself the city that works. Democratically elected representatives are irrelevant in the local political cosmos Lee sketches.
Billboards for a black pol named “Hambone” accessorize a handful of scenes. “He’s the one who tried to block us from having a block party, and he’s also the one who tried to make ‘Chi-Raq’ ineligible for tax rebates and exemptions for shooting in Illinois,” Lee tipped the Boston Globe. The Mayor of the City of Chicago and the President of the United States come into the plot since their respective wives stand with Lysistrata.
A statue of the late Mayor Harold Washington, the first black elected to sit on the fifth floor of City Hall, is glimpsed in “Chi-Raq.” When Lee was working on “Malcolm X,” he passed through Chicago on February 15, 1992. Columbia College’s film department sponsored a question-and-answer session at the Music Box Theater. Fans urged him to come back and make films about Washington and Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was shot dead by police in 1969.
Lee ends “Chi-Raq” with an urgent onscreen “Wake Up.” He reprises the on-air signature of radio dj Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) from “Do the Right Thing.” Jackson calls his character “the voice of the community” on Stuyvesant Street in Brooklyn. He utters the first words of Lee’s 1989 film: “Waaake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up ya wake! Up ya wake!… Get up, get up, get up, get up. Get on out there.” (In Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “The Hateful Eight,” Jackson will order a mortally wounded Southerner: “Wake up, white boy!”)
Black architect Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) delivers a morning volley of “Wake up”’s to his daughter in Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). “Wake up!” is the order voiced by Laurence Fishburne’s campus activist character that punctuates Lee’s “School Daze” (1988). “Delacroix, wake up brother man,” prompts his white boss. “I want to wake America up,” Delacroix later tells 18 white writers around a CNS conference table.
“What’s that `wake up’ thing that’s at the beginning and the end of some of your movies? Is there any meaning behind it?,” asked a member of the audience at Lee’s Music Box Theater event. According to a transcript of a recording made at the time, Lee answered: “You don’t know, huh? It means `Wake up!’… There’s a meaning behind it. It’s not random. It means `Wake up!’” There was a follow-up question: “Are there any subliminal messages in your films?” Lee’s retort: “The guy’s screaming `Wake up!” I don’t think that’s subliminal.”
Maybe Lee will have trouble getting through to a Chicago audience, aside from film students suspecting the subtext of “Wake up!” For all its blunt messaging and artless contriving, “Chi-Raq” is most legible when a melodramatic last-minute revelation by Miss Helen leads to another equally unexpected revelation by Chi-Raq. About her daughter’s shooting– by mistake– at the now demolished Cabrini Green projects, she recounts: “Back then it was a violation of the gang code to murder children.”
Miss Helen tells Chi-Raq his late father once did the right thing to redeem his wrong-doing. Her charged words bind the son to the father: “He tried to be a good man. You can be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man.” If only her saying it could make him so. Her incantation is a disquieting echo of a slave training film titled “Be A Good One” in Willmott’s “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America.”
Where does Spike Lee see himself? In a self-critical turn he twice plays an everyman standing just beyond the yellow police tape at black-on-black homicides in “Clockers.” His work shirt is embroidered with “Dicky” the first time; in a similar bit at the end, he wears a different shirt that identifies him as “Chucky.” Detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) arrives and asks what happened. “Look, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here so I really can’t talk intelligently about it.”
Yet intelligently perceiving and provoking is what Lee attempts in many films, including “Chi-Raq.” “It is a very intellectual movie,” noted Ji Suk Yi, the social media contributor on WLS-Channel 7’s “Windy City Live.” Val Warner, the co-host of this weekday morning show, appears momentarily in “Chi-Raq” as a TV news reporter.
“I was an instigator as a kid,” Lee informed a Playboy Magazine interviewer in 1991. “I just like to make people think, stir ‘em up. What’s wrong with that?” He defended himself in a 1990 op-ed piece the New York Times headlined “I Am Not an Anti-Semite”: “I think it’s reaching the point where I’m getting reviewed, not my films.” Ten years later he shared with Director’s Guild of America Magazine: “People seem to think I walk around in a perpetual state of black anger. I find that hilarious.”
“You get older and realize you can’t rant and rave 24/7,” Lee admitted to the New Statesman in 2007. “You have to pick and choose what you rant and rave about.”
Black-on-black criticism has preoccupied Lee since co-starring in his 1986 indie debut “She’s Gotta Have It.” His self-critique can entail casting himself in unbecoming roles. He is not in “Chi-Raq.”
“Misrepresented People” is the Stevie Wonder song kicking off “Bamboozled”: ”We have been a misrepresented people… you must never be a misrepresented people.” Lee is ambivalent about self-inflicting images that could damage the African-American community. Jada Pinkett-Smith comments in that film’s press notes: “basically this film points the finger at ourselves and says we need to be responsible for what types of things we write and what types of roles we take.”
“You are selling your own people death,” rails single mother Iris Jeeter (Regina Taylor) in “Clockers” when accosting dealers. She does her best to keep them away from her 10-year-old son. “To me, a lot of difficulties we face as African-American people go back to the Black family,” Lee argued in a Jet Magazine cover story from 2012. “Look at the alarming rate of young Black men killing each other and in prison. I think a lot of that can be tied to the fact that daddy’s not home.”
Lee keeps coming back to “brothers killing other brothers.” Rescuing the black community from itself is an intractable challenge he shoulders. Last year’s “Da’ Sweet Blood of Jesus” is his weirdest iteration; its black-on-black bloodletting is vampiric. Semi-automatics are a bigger threat than incisors, however. The Baptist preacher at Lil’ Peace of Heaven Church reminds his flock: “You don’t need no AK-47. You need Romans 8:21.”
“We’re the only race that shoots and kills themselves… It’s time we point the finger at ourselves,” sings Chicago-native Kevon Carter in “Chi-Raq.” Steve Harris, an actor in the film with local roots too, adds: “What we are seeing now is self-destructive stupidity.” If Lee can divine a fix, he has yet to bring it to the screen.
Ultimately, this film is unserious about African-American murder and manhood, although the filmmaker is decidedly not.