Every Spike Lee film is a piece of agitprop, but few of them are entertaining. His newest, Chi-Raq, fails at both goals. The reasons why are as infuriating as today’s uninformative headlines.
Instead of documenting the reality of Chicago as murder city, Lee flaunts fancy poster-art polemics — nothing like Jean-Luc Godard’s ingenious graphics, which made Pop Art of Sixties politics; just rants in gaudy colors and ostentatious fonts. With a Madison Avenue inclination for marketing stronger than his social consciousness, Lee once again bases his conceit and his title on urban slang. It comes from Chicago hipsters who sardonically refer to their home town as “Chi-Raq” — alluding to the city’s high murder rate matching war-zone casualties in Iraq, which have come to define millennial pandemonium. This crisis is the basis for Chi-Raq’s plot gimmick — an approximation of Aristophanes’ 411 b.c. drama Lysistrata.
It may seem sexy — in Mad Ave sound-bite terms — to propose that urban savagery can be resolved when a woman, the ghetto voluptuary Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, whose breasts and posterior vibrate in a thoroughbred’s strut), proposes that her community’s women withhold sex from their rampaging men until black-on-black violence ceases. But, really, it’s a very bad idea (similar to the way the producers of the lurid TV drama Empire claimed its hip-hop record-industry tale is based on King Lear).
The classical European antecedent contradicts Lee’s standard Afrocentric pretenses (there’s a news clip of a 2002 “sex strike” led by Leymah Gbowee in Liberia). And it trivializes Chicago’s dilemma. Still, gang violence isn’t exactly warfare, and it’s a trite tabloid simplification to suggest otherwise. The internecine beefs that begin the film go unclarified: Local rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), who leads the Spartans gang, has a shoot-out in a nightclub with the Trojans gang, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). With visions of West Side Story, Walter Hill’s The Warriors, and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in his head, Lee never gets to the bottom of anything.
Despite his black indie cred, Lee has never found a way to accurately translate hip-hop culture into cinema.
Chi-Raq’s obstreperous and hectoring characters, familiar from Lee’s previous fantasies of black urban life, are not humanized by Chi-Raq’s randomly stylized exposition. One mode of wild behavior (nightclub jubilance) bumps into another (gunfire and arson), then another (scenes of licentious copulation), and still another (street violence followed by harassing protests). If this is to illustrate uninhibited aspects of urban behavior, it clashes with the film’s spoken-word quasi-verse dialogue. The gangsters’ quarrels are bungled by Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott’s arbitrary mix of speechifying and poetry — an attempt at faking cultural authenticity, although there’s not a single memorable line. This proves that Lee, despite his black indie cred, has never found a way to accurately translate hip-hop culture into cinema.
Lee’s use of Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing (1989) made for an entertaining opening scene, but there is nothing comparable in Chi-Raq’s agitprop. From pseudo-Greek choruses to Samuel L. Jackson as a pimp/moderator wearing ice-cream-colored suits; heart-to-heart conversations to song-and-dance numbers; statistics and song lyrics in a pre-credit sequence to text-message frames popping up on screen; plus many, many speeches — Chi-Raq is aesthetic chaos. Lee piles up numerous Brechtian strategies as if to enlighten audiences about the issues at stake in Chicago’s crises, but, as usual, he gets to the bottom of nothing. That’s why white liberal critics respond to Lee’s movies more intently than black moviegoers.
One scene of flagrant badgering shows John Cusack as a lay priest presiding at the funeral of a child (a victim of gang crossfire); his eulogy becomes a ten-minute diatribe against the National Rifle Association, even though the NRA has nothing to do with gang violence. Lee repeats editorial-page ranting as the essence of his insight. As an African-American artist, he fails to look closely at the grievances that cause unrest among young blacks — the reasons why restless males oppose each other, the urges that cause “ride-or-die” females to also sustain turf battles and ego wars. The Lysistrata device does not penetrate the psychic anxiety and cultural traditions of post-slavery African-American life.
Chi-Raq cannot help reflecting the mess of contemporary militancy and the political delusions of the day.
When the strikers (wives, girlfriends, hookers, even lesbians) take over a military facility, the mayor (D. B. Sweeney) and his emissary (Harry Lennix) launch a counter-offensive, “Operation Hot and Bothered.” They bring out “Noriega speakers” to blast the R&B chestnut “Oh, Girl!” by the Chi-Lites in order to weaken both the sex-strikers and their frustrated men — a potentially funny idea (although only Sweeney and Snipes remember they’re participating in farce). This recalls Lee’s tacky production numbers in School Daze, but here the device falls apart because of his stereotyped, fetishized eroticism and lack of follow-through (hipster Lee never gives Chi-Raq and Cyclops the hand-and-heart reconciliation that made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a truly poetic vision).
After this “Oh, Girl!” mishap (which should have been Lee’s coup de grace), the film’s agitprop concept fails utterly. Chi-Raq cannot help reflecting the mess of contemporary militancy and the political delusions of the day — all occurring without spiritual conviction, only with unclarified, poorly thought-out frustration and faulty memories of the heroic civil rights past.
#related#A scene of mothers marching with placards bearing the photos of actual victims is obscene, primarily because Lee glosses over the facts and the heart of their losses. (Robert Altman documented such tragedies and made them felt in the “So Sad” episode of Tanner ’88.) Lee exploits politics only as a means of advancing his career. It’s a career based on the liberal establishment’s guilt. He displays the propagandistic arrogance of a race man, but he lacks the artistry to do it well.
When trendsetter Lee drops phrases like “underground economy” into his film or stages fake global-protest scenes or various harangues (Angela Bassett cussing out an insurance salesman comes the closest to vernacular brio), he enshrines the same chaos as the politicized Internet. Lee speciously endorses the meme of Cusack’s Father Corridan, “Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow.” (And what does “mass incarceration” have to do with brothers killing brothers?) The fact is, social media are the new Jim Crow; that’s where “separate but equal” superficial social griping has created hair-raising conditions of political inutility and immature sloganeering — like “Black Lives Matter,” which turns blacks into fodder for political manipulation. Now anarchists, sex militants, and media pundits can be seen to equally indulge in civil disobedience and intimate betrayal, all contributing to social chaos. Chi-Raq is merely a symptom of this ongoing catastrophe.
Agitprop can sometimes be brilliant art, as Jean-Luc Godard often proved. Miguel Gomes does it less well in his new trilogy, The Arabian Nights, but more interestingly than Spike Lee. The first film of the trilogy, The Restless One, opens this week. Gomes’s uncoordinated mix of Middle Eastern myth and Portugal’s portion of the current European economic crisis makes more sense than Chi-Raq, yet Gomes’s inability to focus his ideas is similarly enervating. I’ll have more to say as the film’s remaining sections are released.
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It’s surprising that Paolo Sorrentino dedicates his new film, Youth, to Francesco Rosi, the great Italian Marxist filmmaker, because Sorrentino seems committed to making Federico Fellini travesties. His Oscar-winning The Great Beauty traduced Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and Youth demeans 8½. Set at a spa where an aging conductor and an aging film director (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) lament their pasts (Jane Fonda shows up as a harridan), Youth comments on creative angst and spiritual futility. The decadent, stylish, and trite viewpoint refutes both Rosi and Fellini. Italy’s finest political filmmakers always put humanity first, which is why they produced history’s greatest political films. Sorry, but Sorrentino is Italy’s Spike Lee.