' Cinema Romantico: Chiraq

Monday, December 28, 2015

Chiraq

Spike Lee’s controversially named “Chiraq” – the undesirable nickname of Chicago where the film is set – opens with an all-hands-on-deck title card declaring: This Is An Emergency. The emergency to which it refers is American gun violence, brought home in the immediately ensuing statistic that relays how more everyday Americans have died at the hands of guns in the last fifteen years than American soldiers in the Iraq conflict. This numeric table-setter is followed by a sudden public gunfight at a rap concert and the death of a too young girl in the street, and briefly it seems that “Chiraq” will be a sobering examination of a modern firearms scourge that so often seems devoid of resolution. But that latter idea – the pointed lack of even the possibility of resolution, as ingrained as guns are in our culture, seems to be what’s most on Spike Lee’s mind, and so he opts for satire, brazenly, crazily and kinetically showing just how wrong-headed and impossible-to-change his target of ridicule is.


The screenplay of Lee and Kevin Willmott cribs from that old cut-up Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the 411 BCE comedy in which the title character puts a stop to the Peloponnesian War by convincing her female cohorts to stop satisfying their war-mad menfolk in the boudoir. “Chiraq’s” Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is married to Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon) who is the leader of the Spartan gang at war with the Trojans (captained by an eye-patch sporting Wesley Snipes who accents most of his few line readings with a quiet if unhinged cackle which makes me remember how much I missed him as an actor). That war comes to Lysistrata’s doorstep one day when her and Demetrius’s south-side abode is set ablaze, forcing them to evacuate and eliciting a decree by Dupree of revenge which prompts Lysistrata to seek shelter at the home of her next-door neighbor, Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett who lends an immaculate air of serene authoritativeness as she explains in no uncertain terms what her new houseguest should go and do.

Lysistrata and the other Spartan ladies put aside their differences with the Trojan women to unite and hold the warfaring gang members at bedside bay, shutting down the “penis power grid”, causing the whole city to go crazy as Lysistrata and her army make like John Brown (who is name-checked) and take over the National Guard Armory and Lee’s already rococo narrative erupts even further to take shots not simply at gun-toting yahoos but racists who will not let the Confederacy die, police violence, imbecilic men’s right activists, and Chicago’s own mayor, portrayed here by D.B. Sweeney as a kind of Rahm-ish version of Gov. William J. Le Petomane. And amidst all these comic broadsides, the majority of characters, when breaking out into song, generally speak not in standard dialogue but rhyming couplets, most notably by Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a dizzying array of natty suits and sporting a cane, a kind of individualized Greek Chorus, who pops repeatedly to talk through the proceedings with a mixture of incredulity, joy and Samuel L. patented foul-mouthed bravado. At one point his character, Dolemedes, mediates a moment between a black gang member and a white cop that acutely and necessarily demonstrates the no-win nature of that fraught relationship.

“(Spike) Lee's best films thrum with a wound-up energy,” the late great Roger Ebert once wrote. Indeed, he may as well have been describing the famed auteur provocateur’s latest opus. “Chiraq” thrums with such wound-up energy that even when the narrative hits 100 and gets off point, its inherent ire remains so palpably on point that it doesn’t really matter. It might sound strange to say, but at his best, Lee is rarely perfect, often indulging in his own whims without regards to whether or not they truly fit in terms of story, more intent on cultivating a roaring maximalism replete with incendiary rhetoric.

It’s a film certain to engender blowback, from every color and creed, for any number of reasons, because Lee is going after everyone, eventually kind of forgoing the city of the title to call out the whole wide world. The gun endemic and the seeming indifference to it by those in the positions of power have driven Lee to a point where he realized normal cinematic channels were not going to properly encapsulate his fury or make his point. And what is his point? After all, the film itself, in the end, has no answer to its central problem other than going old school Athenian which seems, as they say, problematic in the context of the modern world. No, “Chiraq’s” only point is Spike Lee going on air, pounding the table and screaming that he wants all of us to get up now. That he wants all of us to get up out of our chairs and go to the window and open it and stick our heads out and yell I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!

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