by Bill Stamets

Unseriously, take my city: “Chi-Raq”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on December 13, 2015

Chi-Raq
directed by Spike Lee
written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott
scored by Terence Blanchard
acted by Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney
presented by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
running time: 127 minutes

 

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” pulses 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: “Please Pray For My City… Too Much Hate In My City… Dey Die Every Day In My City… And Y’all Mad Cuz 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 rapper boyfriend Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon from NBC’s “Caught on Camera with Nick Cannon”) is on stage taunting and threatening enemies. After his gang rival Cyclops (Wesley Snipes wearing an eyepatch) torches the apartment where she is making 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 leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a civil war in her country. Here Lee inserts a clip from “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary by Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker. One tactic some women tried was stopping having sex with their men. In “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War: a Memoir” written with Carol Mithers, Gbowee admits: “It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.”

A sex strike 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. Gbowee’s book never namedrops “Lysistrata.”

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 2015 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 report women marching in solidarity around the world: Athens, Copenhagen, Delhi, Istanbul, Lahore, Montreal, Paris, Santo Domingo, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Da Republic of Brooklyn. As if all those women seek to end gang gunfire in their cities too.

A gang-free variant of this gambit figured in the September 30, 2015 episode of ABC’s family comedy “`black•ish” when ad exec dad Dre (Anthony Anderson) announced his intent to buy a handgun to defend the home front in his largely white upper-middle class suburb. “I hope that gun is more important to you than sex,” countered his anesthesiologist wife Bo (Tracee Ellis Ross).

Samuel L. Jackson plays the fly Dolmedes, no doubt getting the highest per capita cut of the costume budget. Addressing the audience, 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 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 seven of these direct addresses to viewers. 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 Deus Ex Machina. Englewood vernacular replaces the Attic and Doric dialect used by Aristophanes.

Lee’s “No peace, no piece” and “No peace, no pussy” slogans sound 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 to film in 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,” wrote Berson. Lee’s rhetorical device of choice is chiasmus and its kin antimetabole, signifying-style tropes of transposing reversals of words that is used in rap and earlier African-American discourses. He borrows his epigram for “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)– “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget”– from Zora Neale Hurston.

“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” is a famous example in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845.) “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us,” observed Malcolm X  in his March 29, 1964 speech in Washington Heights, New York. Lee honed that line for Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” (1992): “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

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 sits 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, wearing a shirt reading “The African Hellacaust”), belongs to the Mau Mau cell of militants who respell “black”– per “ole slave owner Webster”– as “blak.” Lee recycles 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 renders the Mau Maus 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 itself. “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 history 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 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 is a challenge for satirists. Not everyone in “Bamboozled” is a target, of course. Lee aligns with anti-CNS picketers Rev. Al Sharpton and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. appearing as themselves, while mocking the Mau Maus for their tactics and the way they dress and speak.

Cochran later served as Lee’s counsel when TNN, owned by Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, announced rebranding the “first television network for men” as Spike TV in 2003. “It’s clear when you say ‘Spike,’ everybody knows who you are talking about,” Cochran argued in Manhattan State Supreme Court. Lee lost. Sharpton joined Lee for the New York City premiere of “Chi-Raq” at the Ziegfeld Theater and exhort the audience: “60 years ago today– December 1, 1955– Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus; we refuse 60 years later to give up our community to gun violence.”

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.” Including Cochran. “Why is it that white people still control what gets on the air?” wonders Wayans in the press kit for “Bamboozled.”

“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 manner imply he’s not really serious about all this. It’s a knowing nod to paranoid theories circulating on talk radio and in barber shops.

Other socio-political opinions in Lee’s work fall less clearly under the rubric of teasing. 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) is a character in “Chi-Raq” modeled on Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina. Father Corridan refers to black-on-black crime as “self-inflicted genocide.” At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lee used that same loaded 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 or community activists 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. In neither film does blackness trigger or target killing. Yet Lee’s and Pfleger’s rhetoric implies a parallel between Spartan versus Trojan gunfire and Hutu slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.

“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.” (Miss Helen earlier claims the opposite: “So many people shot, hospitals going broke.”)

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. In reply to my email asking about the politics articulated by Cusack’s character, Pfleger says they were “taken almost Word for Word” from his Sunday sermons and various conversations with Lee and Cusack.

An end credit for “Chi-Raq” honors Pfleger as “Spiritual Advisor/ Consultant.” On November 20 he updated his Facebook profile picture with a “Chi-Raq” flag. Lee told Chuck Todd on MSNBC that Pfleger is “a real-life living saint.”

“Just got back from Praying with Spike and crew and cast for his movie. Today is Day 1 of Filming… I believe God is using Spike in a powerful way,” was Pfleger’s June 1st post on Facebook. Cast member and southside native Harry Lennix was a guest speaker at Pfleger’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on January 18th.

Lysistrata’s boycott succeeds, notwithstanding a major diss of her tactics by the Commissioner of Public Safety (Lennix): “Who do you think you are, Rosa Parks? What a damn farce.” Is Lee caricaturing Chicago activists, like the Mau Maus in “Bamboozled”? Or thinking wishfully for an unlikely outcome?

At a formal signing ceremony where everyone is dressed in white– except Chi-Raq, still garbed in Spartan gang purple and wearing a necklace with a miniature gold hand grenade– Chicago Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) proclaims: “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 Lysistrata’s original goal of peace between two Englewood gangs. Previously the commissioner informs the mayor: “She wants world peace.” As for the promised Emmet Till Memorial Trauma Center, on December 17th the University of Chicago’s hospital announced plans to create a level 1 adult trauma center.

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 to Lee 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. The men of Englewood are reduced to their dicks once Lysistrata succeeds in “literally shutting down the penis grid,” as a strip club owner bitches. Mounting an armory incursion to unlock the chastity belts of Lysistrata’s army, the foiled and dumbstruck Old Duke (Steve Harris) wonders: “What is the true meaning of life?” It dawns on Miss Helen: “You don’t know.”

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 by Terence Blanchard 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, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are supplied on both the screen and on the soundtrack. Pfleger recites, with rewrites, his July 6th Facebook post about city shootings on the Fourth of July, 2015:

“Independence Weekend…….10 KILLED and 53 SHOT….and some are saying well it’s a little better than last July 4th…..REALLY????? so that becomes the standard? Tell that to the Families preparing Funerals this Morning or to those sitting in Hospital Rooms Praying for Recovery….. Let’s just Face it Chicago is out of Control…..Guns are everywhere and the 1st line of defense….Jobs are nowhere….People feel they are held hostage ….Black Life does not Matter…..and too many of our Communities have been abandoned……..while folks Downtown are still mad about a title of a Movie…..Give me a Damn Break….THIS IS Madness! maybe we need to do like the folks in Katrina and get up on our roof s and write HELP!!!!!!!!. Happy Independence…….SMH”

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 fictional 6th Ward Alderman Hambone are framed within five shots. “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.

David Moore was the 17th Ward Alderman who initially blocked– and later OK’ed– a city permit for St. Sabina Church’s annual block party. Lee was co-host of the June 13th event. On July 27, 4th Ward alderman Will Burns backed a “No Tax Break for Chiraq” resolution introduced to the City Council Finance Committee. The day before, Pfleger posted on Facebook: “why not have a Hearing on what we need to do to stop this Genocide in our City? If you ask me this nothing but an Orchestrated Distraction to keep us from facing the REAL issues that contribute to the Violence.”

Other Democrats are only good for yuks. Dolmedes cracks about President Bill Clinton’s ejaculate on an intern’s dress. “The President of the United States of America called me a motherfucking sorry-ass, punk-ass biiitch,” the mayor complains to his commissioner. “Oh yes, it seems the First Lady has taken the oath and what’s worse, my wife has taken the oath.” Lee shot a TV spot of Rev. Jesse Jackson on a Harlem street talking about drugs during his 1988 presidential campaign.

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.” A Michael Jordan statute is treated reverently as well. Basketball fan Lee gives the legendary athlete a fraction more screen time.

When Lee was working on “Malcolm X,” he passed through Chicago on February 15th, 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 Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Jackson calls his character “the voice of the community” on Stuyvesant Street in Brooklyn. He utters the first words of that  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 “The Hateful Eight,” Jackson’s character orders a mortally wounded Southerner: “Wake the fuck up! 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 in “Bamboozled.” “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, 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.”

Aside from film students suspecting a subtext in “Wake up!”, will Chicago get “Chi-Raq”? After his trailer drew fire, Lee tweeted: “GOOD MORNIN’ CHICAGO. A Few Chosen Words From Me, Spike Lee” with a Vimeo link. “Don’t get it twisted,” he repeats five times in the first minute and a half of this defensive video.

If “Chi-Raq” is a satire, as Lee insists, who are we supposed to laugh at, thereby bettering society or our grasp of its ills? Gangbangers with bad aim, or their lovers who borrow a gag from a Greek play? Or is Lee deploying our laughter towards a priest leading marches of mothers of the slain, a mayor boasting he’s married to a bi-racial ex stripper, or a National Guard general wearing Confederate flag underwear?

Lee’s most legible scene is not at all satiric. A melodramatic last-minute revelation by Miss Helen leads to another equally unexpected revelation by Chi-Raq. About her 10-year-old daughter Pam “shot through her left eye by a stray bullet” 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 three times in “Chi-Raq” as a Channel 7 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 his indie debut “She’s Gotta Have It.” It continues in “School Daze,” set in a black college with the motto “Uplift the Race.” Self-segregating cliques of students spar over their differences in hair, airs, class, clothes and skin tone. Lee’s self-critique can entail casting himself in unbecoming roles, as he does in both films but not in “Chi-Raq.”

Wearing his “Crooklyn” hat, however, he makes a cameo in “Drop Squad,” a feature he executive-produced through his 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks production company. Radical blacks abduct and deprogram assimilated blacks in this 1994 indie directed by D. Clark Johnson, expanded from his 1989 short “The Session” based on a story titled “The Deprogrammer.” Like “Bamboozled” and “Chi-Raq,” “Drop Squad” satirizes blacks betraying their own kind and those who would redeem them by any means necessary.

Lee appears as himself in a television commercial for the General Otis fried chicken franchise he directs. Confederate flags decorate the signage and packaging. At the store’s counter, Lee steps between two church women in their Sunday choir robes, and makes a reflexive pitch to the camera: “Announcer, school these sisters” about the new Gospel Pak special.

Eriq La Salle plays Bruford Jamison, Jr., the black exec at a white advertising agency who hires Lee. Bruford screens the spot at a family gathering. They don’t get it. “But, ma, it was a parody!” he insists in desperation. “We used to march to get away from stuff like that– what’s wrong with you boy?” scolds an aunt.

Bruford’s sister contacts the D.R.O.P. Squad, an underground group that stages interventions for “Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride.” Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times called this “a reprehensible, indefensible dramatic device.” Bruford is kidnapped by blacker-than-thou militants. Strapped into a barber shop chair, the insufficiently black Bruford is subjected to several weeks of sleep deprivation and browbeating with Black History Month materials. Small glasses of water are tossed in his face.

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.” Father/son redemption is central to Lee’s “He Got Game” (1998). It almost comes as an afterthought in “Chi-Raq.”

Another diagnosis surfaces in “Lisa Trotter,” a 19-minute “Lysistrata” adaption set and shot in Los Angeles in 2010. Director Hawthorne James, writer Sam Greenlee (“The Spook Who Sat by the Door”) and lead actress L. Scott Caldwell are Chicago natives. Splitting “Lysistrata” into a first and a last name contemporizes Aristophanes’ lead character as the homonymous “Lisa Trotter.” She organizes a sex boycott at a sports bar, and tells her multi-ethnic co-conspirators: “The only way our men have to prove their manhood is to gangbang and make babies.”

Lee keeps coming back to “brothers killing other brothers.” Rescuing the black community from itself is a 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, though. 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.” “What’s the use of saying `Black Lives Matter‘ if we’re going to kill ourselves?” Steve Harris, an actor in the film with local roots too, adds: “What we are seeing now is self-destructive stupidity.”

Lee’s critique throws no light on the trigger-pullers. Like the one who put seven bullets into King Louie (Louis Johnson Jr.) on December 23rd at 83rd & Pulaski. Fifteen shots missed. This Chicago rapper– “To Live and Die in Chicago“– survived.

Six years ago, he introduced the expressions “Chiraq” and “Drillinois.” On the day the film titled “Chi-Raq” opened, December 4th, King Louie uploaded a rap video titled “Fuck Spike Lee.

On December 28th this survivor told CNN: “The devil’s working overtime, that’s what’s going on in Chicago… Pray for our city.” “I Can’t Fall A Victim To Satan,” raps Nick Cannon in the beginning of “Chi-Raq.” Shooters are demonized, as a matter of fact. To paraphrase that convalescing artist who lives in Chicago, fuck satire.

Ultimately, this film is unserious about African-American murder and manhood, although the filmmaker is decidedly not. Lee sees an intractable tragedy on the south side of Chicago, and divines no fix and delivers no uplift. The humor dehumanizes. Ineptly, this ostensible satirist inflicts a farce on the city.

 

©2015 Bill Stamets

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