Skip to main content

VIDEO ESSAY: Wake Up: Spike Lee's Vital "Chi-Raq"


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. 

Comments

  1. That is really good and interesting post, you did good job by writing this post. Thanks for sharing the post with us and keep posting such posts

    ReplyDelete
  2. Intelligent idea!! Have you exceptional post, then, please share . Also do you know about best content writer like http://boxmachine.com/UserProfile/tabid/42/userId/63323/Default.aspx ? I want to take essay from him.
    Welcome!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.
So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen…

VIDEO ESSAY: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

"He's making all this up as he goes along."

NOTE: I was fortunate enough to attend a rare 70mm screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master on Thursday August 16, 2012 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. In attendance were writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and one of the film's actors, Kevin J. O'Connor (both of whom are pictured with mehere).


--

The key to the success of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master doesn't come in its mammoth achievement of being shot on 70mm film or its carefully constructed parallel origin story of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology practices. Rather, that success is embedded in an intimate scene: a single shot close-up on alcoholic war veteran Freddie Sutton (an unforgettable Joaquin Phoenix) during a "process of time" session with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in prime Hubbard form). Up until this scene, the character of Freddie dutifully performed the task of delivering the film's dark lau…

Winnie the Pooh Mashup Trailer: "Christopher Robin & Ted"

"Sooner or later, your past catches up to you." That's the tagline Disney is going with for their live-action Winnie the Pooh movie Christopher Robin, starring Ewan McGregor. While watching the teaser trailer (which debuted today) and getting my first look at a real life Winnie the Pooh talking bear, I couldn't help but be reminded of Seth MacFarlane's Ted, the R-rated comedy which featured a protagonist who's a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear. Ironically enough, MacFarlane's talking bear Ted has a much more cuddly and lovable look to him. Disney decided to give Winnie the Pooh a crude and homely-looking appearance -- not exactly what you'd expect for their intended child audience. So I decided to create this mashup trailer, which rewrites Christopher Robin's (McGregor) backstory to suggest that Ted was his original bear and he just sewed up the teddy bear's parts to look like Winnie the Pooh.

Talk about your past catching up to you! Watch my…

The 30 Best Films of 2013

Anyone who tells you that 2013 wasn't a spectacular year for movies is either lying through their teeth or is someone who spent most of the year cooped up in their apartment watching episodic television on Netflix. Here go the 30 best films of the year.


30. Fruitvale Station - Directed by Ryan Coogler
29. Post Tenebras Lux - Directed by Carlos Reygadas
28. Side Effects - Directed by Steven Soderbergh
27. Room 237 - Directed by Rodney Ascher
26. Before Midnight - Directed by Richard Linklater
25. Lenny Cooke - Directed by Joshua and Ben Safdie
24. The Place Beyond The Pines - Directed by Derek Cianfrance
23. Blue Jasmine - Directed by Woody Allen
22. Nebraska - Directed by Alexander Payne
21. Mud - Directed by Jeff Nichols
20. Gravity - Directed Alfonso Cuarón
19. The End of Love - Directed by Mark Webber
18. American Hustle - Directed by David O. Russell
17. Inside Llewyn Davis - Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
16. Her - Directed by Spike Jonze
15. 12 Years A Slave - Directed by

Far From Heaven: Studying The Headroom In Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida"

Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida tells the quietly haunting story of a young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who sets out to find her family origins in 1960s Poland. At the beginning of the film, the once-orphaned Anna learns that she still has one living relative: her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a revered court judge in the city. As Anna sets out on her journey of self-discovery, Pawlikowski, and cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, announce their visual strategy for conveying their protagonist's hopeless and essentially powerless role in the world: by dwarfing the screen figure of Anna with a maximum amount of screen headroom.

Look at how the following shot makes Anna look insignificant against the towering institution of the convent.


In the city, Anna meets her aunt Wanda and there Anna learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. After Wanda tells Ida of her parents' horrific death during WWII, the pair set off to find out what exactly happened and perh…

The 25 Best Films of 2014

Under The Skin - Directed by Jonathan GlazerWhiplash - Directed by Damien ChazelleSelma - Directed by Ava DuVernayJoe - Directed by David Gordon GreenA Most Violent Year - Directed by J.C. ChandorThe Immigrant - Directed by James GrayGoodbye To Language - Directed by Jean-Luc GodardInterstellar - Directed by Christopher NolanInherent Vice - Directed by Paul Thomas AndersonNightcrawler - Directed by Dan GilroyBirdman - Directed by Alejandro González IñárrituFoxcatcher - Directed by Bennett MillerGone Girl - Directed by David FincherLife Itself - Directed by Steve JamesDawn of the Planet of the Apes - Directed by Matt ReevesBoyhood - Directed by Richard LinklaterSnowpiercer - Directed by Bong Joon-hoIda - Directed by Peter PawlikowsiAmerican Sniper - Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Motion Picture Superimposed

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) 
In its earliest days, the superimposed image was used mainly as a special effect, most notably in Victor Sjöström's 1921 film The Phantom Carriage, where it created the illusion of ghosts in the afterlife. These days, the superimposed image is almost everywhere, from an editing dissolve that suggests a continuation in mood (e.g. the transition from a saddened Don Corleone in bed to his home country of Italy where his son Michael has sought refuge in The Godfather) to a literal visualization of a character's inner psychology (e.g. the face of death on Norman Bates in Psycho). For me, I find the superimposed image to be one of the most powerful visual strategies for conveying an idea or a feeling. In fact, last year I created a video essay on the works of Wong Kar-Wai that heavily relied on the use of superimposition to demonstrate the filmmaker's trademark visual fervor. Below, I've curated some standout superimposed images from over the years,…

Trailer Alert: "Ready Player One" - 'Come With Me' features King Kong, Halo and "Jurassic Park"

The latest trailer for Steven Spielberg's upcoming futuristic epic Ready Player One (based on the popular sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline) gets the Willy Wonka treatment with an updated cover of the song "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryIMDb provides a synopsis for Spielberg's film:

"When the creator of a virtual reality world called the OASIS dies, he releases a video in which he challenges all OASIS users to find his Easter Egg, which will give the finder his fortune. Wade Watts finds the first clue and starts a race for the Egg."

Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) stars as Wade Watts, along with a cast that includes Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) and Lena Waithe (Master of None). Previous teasers for Ready Player One showed us popular screen characters like The Iron Giant, The Joker and Freddy Krueger. This latest trailer gives us exciting glimpses of King Kong, the Spartans from Halo and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Check out…

VIDEO ESSAY: Behind You

That moment when it feels like someone--or something--is standing behind you. But then you turn around and find nothing.


For the cinematic narrative, the point of view (POV) shot is a high-powered filmmaking aesthetic that thrusts the viewer from omniscient viewer to dynamic player within the context of the screen. Whether it's a subjective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view takes the place of the screen figure's own line-of-sight) or an objective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view exists alongside the screen figure, a la "cheek-to-cheek"), the POV shot invades the frame's axis, breaking the 180-degree rule, taking the visual rhetoric of the film to the next level. And as technology and filmmaking tools (e.g. the advent of 3D) continue to push the boundaries of audience-to-screen immersion, one thing remains constant: the audience sure enjoys their God's eye view in the universe of the movie.


Which is why the follow shot (sometimes called the "…

Review: "Loveless"

Some people should never get married. Likewise, some people should never become parents. Crudely enough, the protagonists of Andrey Zvyagintsev's new film Loveless fit both of those descriptions. The Leviathan helmer returns with another bleak and unflinchingly honest portrayal of family dysfunction and social politics. Loveless is also a commentary on modern Moscow. Zvyagintsev uses the car radio as the film's cultural master of ceremonies, informing the audience of the state of Russia, the political climate and expected societal norms. In fact, the only other time the car radio isn't used for exposition, is when a character turns it into an aural weapon to antagonize another character, by blaring loud metal rock during an inappropriate time. The coal-hearted characters in Loveless listen to the radio, but hardly to each other.

Early in the film we learn that Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the final steps of finalizing their divorce. While Zheny…