Saturday, December 5, 2015
Spike Lee's new movie "Chi-Raq" opened nationwide Friday, and while I planned on seeing it eventually—you kinda have to, given its theme of gang violence in Chicago—it was the sort of obligatory, I better-go-to-the-doctor-and-get-that-checked duty I might have put off for a while, if not forever, had not Ald. Joe Moore (49th) held a community forum to show the film Thursday, and invited Washington Post Syndicate columnist Esther J. Cepeda, who invited me.
It seemed an opportunity.
As a fan of the classics, I admired Lee's bold decision to take Aristophones' 5th century BC Greek comedy "Lysistrata," about a sex strike trying to end the Peloponnesian war, and translate it to 2015 Chicago. A daring conceit that worked, complete with its rhyming dialogue and serpentine narrator, Samuel L. Jackson, dressed in candy-colored suits and carrying a cane like Baron Samdi, the voodoo spirit of death.
It worked for about the first 20 minutes, that is. Truly, I began to suspect I was witnessing some kind of masterpiece, from the opening song, "Pray 4 the City," to Father Michael Pfleger's stern voice-over to the scene of a rap concert erupting into violence at a club. The movie is raw, funny, and strange. Teyona Parris, a statuesque goddess straight from the Pam Grier school of acting. She strides with far more authority than she delivers her lines. She's Lysistra, in love with Demtrius "Chi-Raq" Dupree, a heavily-tattooed Nick Cannon, and their initial roll in the hay gets interrupted by a fire set by Cyclops, the head of the rival gang, the Trojans, played for laughs with eyepatches matching his outfits by Wesley Snipes.
Just to remind viewers that there's something tragic at the heart of this, Jennifer Hudson is Irene, the mother of a young girl cut down in gang crossfire. Hudson is the best thing in the film, obviously there in an attempt to prove that Lee isn't just having fun with the tragedy of others. In one scene Hudson tries to wash her daughter's blood off the street, ending up only spreading it further and further, in a widening circle, which is how violence goes.
If only the rest of the movie was like that. But it isn't. The trouble with "Chi-Raq" is that it chews on its one great idea, and never offers any other. The movie doesn't go anywhere from there, just grinds through the sex strike with a variety of set pieces and gags. "This is the longest movie I've ever seen in my life," I whispered to my companion, who was already checking her emails. "This is longer than Dr. Zivago." (It clocks at a couple minutes under two hours, in real time, but watching it felt like sitting through "Tristan und Isolde.")
I wouldn't have guessed that it was possible to make sex, or lack of it, and violence so boring, but Spike Lee manages it. At times the movie is so poorly made I had trouble figuring out what's going on. Lysistrata, taking a page from John Brown, apparently, leads her chaste women to seize the Illinois National Guard Armory, after a ludicrous encounter with a white general in Confederate flag underpants that I guess was supposed to show how we white folk are really all closet racists. The Armory scenes go on and on, her Valkyries snapping their fingers and repeating vows of chastity, the cops — their chief played with set-jaw brio by peerless Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick -- surrounding the place. I do give credit to Lee for repaying Rahm Emanuel's cack-handed attempts to water down the film's title with D.B.Sweeney's spot-on parody of the mayor's high pitched, stressed-out whine, although by that point things had become too surreal to carry any kind of satiric punch. If Rahm sees it — he has a way of ducking things you'd expect him to have seen—he'll probably just giggle and think: Cool, I'm parodied in a Spike Lee film.
The final reconciliation scene, where the white-clad principles sign some kind of peace pact and then are promised new trauma centers that they wouldn't need if the shooting were going to stop , well, let's say that I wondered if a bunch of Ewoks were going to show up and burst into a joyous dance of celebration. It's just stupid.
The community leaders that Ald. Moore gamely assembled to comment after the film were equally unimpressed.
"My mother once told me, if you don't have something good to say about something, don't say anything at all," began Charles Hardwick, tactfully. A former gangbanger with 14 years in prison, now director of the Howard Area Resource Center, working to help felons integrate back into society, Hardwick compressed the film into one word: "Tomfoolery."
That's perfect. It's too trivial a film to get too overwrought about. It's like decrying "Cleopatra Jones" in the early 1970s. There are bigger fish to fry.
"Hollywood did what it's supposed to do," Hardwick said (I'm not sure if Hollywood is supposed to turn out crap. It just does).
Hardwick offered a clearer view on the causes of violence than the film does, talking about how children are abused and neglected, then pass it on. "All your life, the one discipline you ever know is violence from your parents," he said. (The only child in "Chi-Raq" is Patti, dead and under a sheet, her bow visible). But then Hardwick lost the thread, along with several others, slipped seamlessly into vague references to plots behind all the problems of the urban poor: guns, violence, drugs and gangs.
"There's some people believe there's a conspiracy," he said.
At least he didn't blame AIDS on Jewish doctors, at least not at Ald. Moore's forum. The remarks—he wasn't alone in the observation—reminded me of Gore Vidal's deathless line about the rich: "They don't have to conspire because they all think alike." Perhaps the poor do too. There's no need for shady outside forces to impose these woes; folks lap 'em up, unaided. I would call "Chi-Raq" a noble failure, but there really isn't much noble about it. The flick gives off a distinct reek of Quentin Tarantino homage. A mess of unerotic sex and cartoony violence that, for all Lee's stabs at its significance, is still too unreal, too prettied up far too much, despite Jennifer Hudson's bravura attempts to put a human face on the whole garish spectacle.
Oh, and John Cusack is in it, playing a Hollywood version of Father Pfleger. Cusack is slack-faced and raspy and radiates the tightly-wound, glum indignation that Pfleger sinks into more and more as the years go by. But Cusack is only a shadow of the real thing and his scenes just lay there, wheezing. Which I suppose could be said for the film as a whole. To be charitable, I imagine being stuck in a life of senseless violence and endless drug use quickly become dull too, and in that sense "Chi-Raq" reflects that reality by being tedious for the last two-thirds of the movie. Which would be a kind of genius if Lee intended it to be that way. But my guess is he didn't.