Chi-Raq – Spike Lee (2015)

Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I called the city home for six years, and grew to love it. I consider it my spiritual hometown, and so was very interested to see Spike Lee’s take on the gun violence that has plagued the city and filled anyone who loves the place with despair. Living on the south side in the early aughts, I am familiar with many of the places and neighborhoods portrayed in the film, although the violence was nowhere near the level then that it is now (and even so, I was living in a fairly protected enclave). Many Chicagoans have been vocal about the name of the film being pejorative, and the film itself reflecting negatively on the city; while some of this is understandable and perhaps justified, in truth it seems to have more to do with Lee’s outsider status, and positions him as a kind of carpetbagger or tourist of tragedy. The fact of the matter is that the level of violence Chicago has experienced in the past decade is staggering, and anyone with Lee’s status who wants to draw attention to the problem should be commended. Yes, his film is a polemic, and yes, its didacticism has no interest in drawing a nuanced, wide-ranging portrait of the city in full. This is not a problem, but a strength. Anyone who is concerned about the numbing level of daily (gun) violence in America should be thankful this film exists; that we might be amazed it exists is a measure of how acclimated we have become to living in a nightmare (and how easily we can deny that nightmare as long as we are able to quarantine it within certain communities).

The film works in a few different modes or registers. We begin with a straightforward sequence laying out the facts of the problem that is quite unlike anything you have seen in the past thirty years in mainstream American cinema – the frightening numbers of dead and wounded are laid out as an anguished, angry rap provides the subjective view of this violence. We then move to a nightclub, where a shooting is about to take place during the performance on stage; right before the shooting, however, the action freezes, and our narrator/chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, in verse, the structure of the film, and that it is based on Lysistrata by Aristophenes. Many times during the course of the narrative, Dolmedes returns to comment on the unfolding action. The narrative itself, pitched, like Lysistrata, as a farce, concerns two warring gangs, one run by rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the older Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, and starts the movie without much awareness of the terrible conditions of her community, and in denial about her boyfriend’s contributions to the problems. She is radicalized both by the death of a child and by her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who encourages Lysistrata to use the power she has as a woman in a political way – that is, she starts to think about withholding sex as a way to control Chi-Raq and tamp down the violence he thoughtlessly causes in the community. At this point, Lee mixes in “documentary” sequences that highlight the present day reality of this tactic, such as the peace movement in Liberia led by Crystal Roh Gawding that sought to end that country’s civil war in a similar way. Lysistrata’s task is to convince not only her fellow gang wives, but those of Cyclops’s gang, that such a move is in the best interests of the entire community. As the action begins to take root and show some success, the movement grows not only city-wide, but worldwide, as women everywhere begin to use sex as a tool of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata and her “army” nonviolently seize the National Guard barracks in Chicago and a stand-off between the men of the city and the women ensues. On a somewhat separate track, we have the story of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), whose child was collateral damage in a gun battle. This death is partly what influenced Lysistrata, but Lee returns to Irene and her grief, making the child’s funeral a central sequence in the film – it is during this church service, led by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character modeled closely on the real life Reverend Michael Pfleger, that Lee, through Corridan, gives voice to one of the most scathing indictments of the American way of death, and the economics undergirding it, that we’ve ever seen in a narrative film. Eventually, the “armies” of men and women square off in the persons of Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, with the first to orgasm the loser. Before anyone can win or lose, however, Cyclops and the other male representatives of the community (not just gang members at this point, but men from all walks of life and levels of “respectability”) intervene and force Chi-Raq to concede. Lysistrata carries the day, and in the denouement, everyone dressed in white (suggesting heaven and an ideal conclusion that cannot be realized in this world, sadly), Cyclops and Chi-Raq sign an accord to stop the violence, and Chi-Raq begs the forgiveness of Irene, confessing that it was he who killed her child. He then willingly accepts his punishment, and implores those in attendance (and, by extension, the viewers of the film) to use his case as a negative example.

I fully admit the description does not do the film justice. You might be able to tell it is a fairly radical work as far as mainstream cinema goes, especially these days, but it is pretty radical even by Spike Lee’s standards. His anger is often palpable, but what I don’t convey well is just how funny the film is. Jackson’s Dolmedes is outright hilarious, and even though we are in the realm of the serious, the film is a farce first and foremost. All the same, the ending is quite powerful, and moving, and much of that can be chalked up to Nick Cannon, a huge surprise in his controlled and astute portrayal of Chi-Raq. Really, though, the entire cast is excellent – the purely farcical characters, such as General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly, channeling a union of Generals Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) come off the worst, as they seem cartoonish and shallow, but those with a serious mode are very affecting. (John Cusack is unexpectedly great in this way, but I must also give a shout out to Wesley Snipes, who returns to the screen with an affected character who could easily be dismissed, but owns it, being by turns ridiculous and serious as needs be). Like many other of Spike Lee’s films, though, Chi-Raq has problems. Lee is just not good at dramaturgy, and his narratives are often lumpy, misshapen, and lack momentum. In his best work, such as Do the Right Thing, he triumphs in the end – but his best work, to my mind, is his earliest and least experimental. As he has gotten older, Lee has been willing to try new forms – Bamboozled, for instance, is audacious, but overlong and tiresome. More conventional fare, such as Summer of Sam, comes off as pointless and downright boring. So while I prefer Lee in his experimental mode, in any mode his films often have long, tedious parts. This is partly due to a lack of structure, but the greater problem is his inability to write characters that are both believable and who convey emotion and motivation through action rather than words (another reason Do the Right Thing works). Often the acting in his films seems bad, as in the embarrassingly hysterical Jungle Fever, but it is not really the fault of the actors – the characters are simply too often types or obvious contrivances, spouting dialogue that communicates Lee’s point of view straight-up. They rarely feel organic, or fully formed, and tend to lack ambiguity. We get a taste of this early in the film, especially with Angela Bassett’s character. Such ham-handedness makes the proceedings feel amateurish, like an overly earnest After School Special. In Chi-Raq, though, it works to his advantage a bit, because the whole film has an improvised air, and often seems like a piece of filmed street theater. Lee makes use of real locations, and foregrounds the artificial, and temporary, nature of the production, for instance by using fabric signs hung on the side of buildings in place of billboards or real signage. This tactic reinforces the universality of the material, suggesting that Chicago is just the most recent stop on the tour of this immortal agit-prop theater troop. Ultimately, for me Lysistrata is just a very odd choice for source material given the topic Lee wants to address. A gang war is not like other wars – as Lee makes apparent, it is the product of structural forces beyond the control of the disempowered actors in the street. And the gender aspect of the play, while providing much of the comedy, is a strange fit as well for the subject matter. Yes, it makes sense in that the mothers of the dead might ultimately be the loudest, and angriest, voices, but the sex comedy side feels odd. I would wish for a film that is angrier, tougher, and wrings tears from the audience throughout, rather than waiting for the post-climactic afterlife. Still, even though the film is uneven, and even though it does not touch a nerve as forcefully as it needs to, it is an essential film for our time, simply because it is so unique and addresses a topic that no one else of Lee’s visibility is touching.

Three and a half stars out of five

Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five