The films of truly outstanding director Spike Lee take a special niche in American cinema. More than that, they especially enrich so-called Black cinema. Lee’s oeuvre includes a great number of films. To mention just some of them: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), Love & Basketball (2000), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), finally, his recently released Chi-Raq (2015).
This podcast is presented and produced by Tatiana Prorokova a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany.
Lee’s works have received a lot of acclaim from their audience as well as from film critics due to the issues raised by the director and the way these problems are formulated and presented to us. African American director Spike Lee manages to present to America racial problems the country has wallowed in in the most authentic and explicit way. Houston A. Baker, Jr., comments: “Lee’s first films are low-budget, minor masterpieces of cultural undercover work. They find the sleeping or silenced subject and deftly awaken him or her to consciousness of currents that run deep and signify expensively in Black America” (166). The scholar continues, shrewdly pinpointing the peculiarity of Spike Lee’s cinema: “Now, it is not that Lee’s films are devastatingly original, telling us always things we do not know. What is striking about his work is that it is, in fact, so thoroughly grounded in what we all know, but refuse to acknowledge, speak, regret, or change” (167, author’s emphasis). Dan Flory contends that the main goal of Lee’s works is “to make the experience of racism understandable to white audience members who ‘cross over’ and view his films” (40). In this respect, one can even talk about particular types of characters or images created by this director, like, for example, “‘sympathetic racists,’” defined as “[white] characters with whom mainstream audiences readily ally themselves but who embrace racist beliefs and commit racist acts”; or “unsympathetic black characters with whom many audience members might feel little or nothing in common” (40-41). At the same time, Baker singles out another aim that Lee seeks to fulfill in his films: “His [Lee’s] mission is freedom – that monumental and elusive ‘it’ that Black folks have always realized they gotta have” (175).
Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, however, stands out of the long row of Lee’s previous works due to the problems raised as well as the projected urgency of doing something about these issues. The director starts his film reporting shocking details about the death rate in one of America’s largest cities – Chicago. While in its most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has lost 2,349 and 4,424 Americans respectively, during the same period, 7, 356 people were murdered in Chicago, which, shockingly displays that it has been safer for Americans in war-torn countries in the Middle East rather than in this American city. Thus, calling Chicago Chi-Raq, Lee claims that it is America’s second Iraq. The film later criticizes U.S. foreign and domestic policy that arguably led to the criminal activity in Chicago. For example, when a priest, being overwhelmed by the numbers and age of the recently killed people, exclaims: “Where was their freedom? Where was their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” He overtly refers to America’s mission in the Middle East to liberate the oppressed; however, he implicitly argues that while fighting far away, the United States does not notice the growing problems on its own territory, among its own citizens, specifically among “young black males”. The issue is later touched upon again by one of the heroines (Angela Bassett) who openly blames America for what is happening in Chicago: “The U.S. spends money on the Iraqi people – to train them, govern them, help them build an economy. Billions and billions of dollars! The Afghan people too. They don’t do economic development like that here on the South Side. See, Americans like war. They like guns.” Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) blames the government for not doing anything against poverty and not investing into education, thus, creating a situation when a huge number of Americans “go from third rate schools to first class high-tech prisons.” Finally, the main heroine – Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) – calls Barack Obama “President Hussein-Obama,” which is a very strong metaphor for the inaction or wrong actions of the U.S. Administration that have made Chicago what it is now.
Apart from revealing the terrifying criminal activity in Chicago (which, as Lee makes it explicit, is the problem of other big cities, too), where children and young men and women get shot every day on busy streets and nobody can do anything, the film also displays positive images of Chicago – its tall buildings, clean streets, and majestic monuments. Working with the contrast, Lee apparently does not give up hope for a better future that the city might have once the government starts paying more attention to the problems of African Americans and young African Americans choose another life for themselves and their future children.
The film turns into a speculation on what could happen when somebody eventually decided to stop violence on the streets of Chi-Raq. And here Lee’s work echoes ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata whose plot is based on a rather comic story: women make men stop the war by means of denying any sexual privileges. This is exactly what the main heroine of Chi-Raq, named Lysistrata, persuades the women of Chi-Raq to do in order to stop violence. Having sworn not to have sex with any men unless peace is negotiated, women go on a strike. It is, however, interesting that these are women who rise up to end up this war. The reason for it can be easily explained by the fact that women suffer most of all from violence organized by men who kill their children, lovers, and husbands. A woman is therefore celebrated in its most conventional role of a mother.
While first taken as a silly joke, the strike eventually becomes even a bigger problem for the local men than shootings. And here, I claim, Spike Lee skillfully turns the focus of his film from the problem of guns to the overt problem of sexism that exists in the community. The only effective measure that can be taken in order to stop the war is to deprive men of their access to women, which they have always been taking for granted. Whereas women also seem to suffer from this new rule and, at first, even express their dissatisfaction, these are men who eventually get angry about women for not obeying them, thus, refusing to be men’s sexual objects. And while in the original play such an attitude toward women may be treated by the audience rather neutrally, the fact that the situation repeats in the twenty-first century is outrageous.
Having put on the most revealing clothes, exposing their bodies, wearing a red lipstick while on a strike, women both provoke and mock men who treat a woman as nothing more than a pretty doll who is good only at satisfying man’s needs. In turn, a man is the one who governs the city. Women of Chi-Raq disagree, claiming, “saving lives – that’s our job”. While Lysistrata proclaims that women’s mission is to “giv[e] the hood the true meaning of life,” one of the men asks: “What is the true meaning of life?” Lysistrata obviously becomes confused with this reaction; yet, now she realizes that all that power that men seem to have accumulated in their hands, making the community overtly patriarchal, is fake.
Women realize that only they have enough power to change their life in the city – to transform Chi-Raq back into Chicago. And the key to this transformation, according to the film, is respect. In one of the scenes, Lysistrata claims, “we deserve respect” and I argue this is the main message of the film. Citizens deserve respect from their government; people deserve to live respecting each other; women deserve to be respected by men. Once people start to respect each other, there will be no shootings, no innocent deaths, no racism, and no sexism.
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq therefore becomes an urgent message to, first of all, millions of Americans. Lee openly demonstrates that while the United States has deserved a reputation of one of the most democratic and economically stable states, the country remains blind to its most pressing domestic problems. It comes as no surprise that the director starts his film with the words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”, desperately hoping to attract attention of as many viewers as possible.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture.” Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 154-76. Print.
Chi-Raq. Dir. Spike Lee. Perfs. Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, and Angela Bassett. Roadside Attractions, 2015. DVD.
Flory, Dan. Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2008. Print.