Normally, I don’t do voiceovers for my video essays. I tend to let the audio samples and images speak for themselves; I suppose this habit traces back to high school English, where I was taught to use the text itself as the primary source for an argument in an essay. So, it made sense for my visual essays to rely solely on the audio-visual assets—a sort of moving image text, if you will. But for this particular video essay, because of my close connection to the city that birthed me, I felt having my narration, as a guiding narrative force, would be acceptable.
Video Essay Transcript:
When I was 22 years old I had a loaded gun pressed against the back of my head. It happened during an armed robbery in downtown Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and to be honest gun violence here is nothing new. When I was a child my aunt’s husband was shot several times up on the northwest side of the city. I’ve also had close family friends killed by gun shootings on the streets. However, in the last few years, the narrative of Chicago gun violence has taken the national spotlight, since reports of gun shootings are as commonplace as daily weather updates.
So you can imagine the skeptical feelings many lifelong Chicagoans had when they heard that New York’s own Spike Lee would be making a film about Chicago gun violence. The general feeling was, “Who’s this outsider telling our story?” Then word got out that it was going to be a satire and not a dead serious film, like say, Boyz N The Hood. Flash forward to December 2015: Chi-Raq has a brief stint in theatres before streaming on Amazon Prime. And while Lee’s Chi-Raq has its fair share of admirers, a lion share of moviegoers—especially those from the Second City—were quick to dismiss it and actually continue to bash it.
Now as someone who loves the cinema and is actually from Chicago and lives here in the city, I’d like to take this opportunity to show you how significant and seriously vital a film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq really is.
So here we go.
The first thing to understand wholly, as Spike mentioned earlier, is that Chi-Raq is working primarily as satire. Now that’s a different thing than a director making a film that pokes fun at or devolves the serious subject matter of gun violence. What satire in this case does is expose the stupidity of the players involved in street violence and exaggerates the profundity of such a societal disease.
For a narrative weapon, Chi-Raq uses the classic Greek play "Lysistrata" to help drive the plot forward. Now you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the concept of "Lysistrata"; basically it’s a story of a woman who decides to end a civil war by rallying the rest of the women to stop having sex with the men from their respective armies. So, in Chi-Raq, it’s the members of the Spartan and the Trojan gangs who stop getting laid.
And Spike Lee, ever the ambassador for cinematic bravado, injects Chi-Raq with plenty of his trademark embellishments. Take for instance, this passage, spoken in rhyming verse by the film’s jester at court and unofficial emcee Dolomedes, played by national treasure Samuel L. Jackson.
Now a lot is happening here. It’s a rousing soliloquy of sorts that disguises itself as standup comedic verse; Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott do an extraordinary job of packing tons of information and social critiquing all in what could I’ll describe as “Sam-Jackson-Pentameter.”
But it’s just not that Spike Lee has flair to spare and more style than most directors, it’s that he’s doing all of this out of real passion and concern. This is vital cinema. If you look at his filmography, the most memorable pieces of his cinema stem from a real connection to the primary source; whether it’s the invisible forces that pull us to our destiny or the opening title coda reflecting on a national tragedy, there is a palpable felt force that you cannot ignore in a Spike Lee joint.
And let’s take a moment to look at the wonderful opening title sequence of Chi-Raq. Spike Lee, like many great auteurs, knows when to borrow from cinematic giants; this opening title sequence owes greatly to Jean-Luc Godard.
Chi-Raq is not a perfect film. But when it works, it really soars above most of contemporary cinema. The fact that it was defeated by public opinion long before the final cut was put to print is a civic shame.
Funny, how when certain other iconic filmmakers go the satirical route to address big issues, cinephiles rejoice and treat those like sacred artifacts. Sydney Lumet wasn’t ridiculed for pointing out our zombie-like addiction to television. Stanley Kubrick didn’t lose artistic merit when he treated warfare like a comedy sketch.
Spike Lee detractors owe him a fair shake. The notion that he’s not qualified to make a film on a systemic problem plaguing minority and poverty-stricken communities is preposterous. This is the same filmmaker who takes more artistic chances in his sleep than most other directors. If it's a controversial topic, nobody's going to tackle it like Spike Lee. Look no further than his searing and stirring montage from his film Bamboozled.
The ending to one of Spike Lee’s first feature films School Daze ended with Laurence Fishburne urgently telling the players in his film to “Wake Up.” In an appropriate full circle move, the ending of Chi-Raq has Samuel L. Jackson telling the residents of Chicago to wake up. In a sense, that’s what happened in the movie-going world too. With the negative response to Chi-Raq, it’s not so much that Spike Lee has lost his touch as a director as it is that moviegoers slept on their responsibility to wake up and face the music.