The term damned if you do and damned if you don’t kept coming to mind combing through the pushback to Spike Lee’s latest, “Chi-Raq.”
The film was co-written by University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott. It’s managed to rile the mayor of Chicago, city activists and one of the Windy City’s better-known rappers.
“Chi-Raq” isn’t the usual gang-gratuitous violence script. It’s a satire; a bold use of rhyme, with gripping outrage about the toll of gun deaths on Chicago’s south side. Strike that. The film is about such violence everywhere.
The cast is one any director would covet: Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris and Wesley Snipes.
Chance The Rapper took to Twitter to berate the film, even before its release Dec. 4. He called it exploitative and problematic, and accused Lee: “You don’t do any work with the children of Chicago, You don’t live here, you’ve never watched someone die here.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel jumped in, worried about the city’s image. Sorry Mayor, but the city earned the reputation. If that feels like an indictment of your leadership, then own it.
Chicago residents weren’t off-base to conjure the term Chi-Raq, a nod comparing the number of city murders to the losses of soldiers killed in Iraq. Besides, Chance is the son of Emanuel’s chief of staff, which adds another dimension to his criticism.
Pushback was guaranteed. Willmott and Lee elevated a wrenchingly painful subject in a way that is unfamiliar. Many people don’t get satire. Partly, because it is so often poorly done.
The film is a modern take on the Greek play “Lysistrata,” which revolved around women withholding sex to get their men to end the Peloponnesian War. In Chicago, the women of the film expect their gangster men to do the same. “Lock it up” is one chant.
It’s campy, will come off overly sexualized for some people’s tastes and, as Chance tweeted, the premise of a sex revolt is highly unlikely as a fix.
But the idea that women can be among the most powerful anti-violence voices is true.
Hudson plays the mother of young girl who is killed by a stray bullet. The scene of Hudson taking a brush and a bucket of water, scrubbing her dead daughter’s blood from the street, is heart-wrenching. And it’s not a theatrical stretch. In a lot of neighborhoods, people perform that chore.
And it’s even more powerful knowing that Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew all died from gunshots in Chicago in 2008.
Despite whimsical and humorous portions, the film is not mocking the deaths.
Cusack’s role at the funeral for Hudson’s slain daughter is one example. Cusack’s character is based on a real person, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church. He lights it up, preacher style, with the refrain, “We will not allow this self-inflicted genocide to continue.”
That scene is also where the film recognizes a litany of other underlying causes for hopelessness spawned of poor schools, unemployment and unresolved previous murders.
St. Sabina’s homepage asks for donations to solve the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, who police believe was lured to an alley and executed in November as part of a sick retaliation against the alleged gang activities of his father. One man has been charged.
Father Pfleger gave Tyshawn’s homegoing eulogy with words that should be shouted in many cities: “Our children have a right to walk our streets, our children have a right to play in the park, our children have a right to sit on their porch, our children have a right to expect to be safe wherever they are in the city of Chicago.”
Chicago’s homicide numbers are astoundingly high, more than 460 this year. But Kansas City is nearing triple digits for 2015; awaiting murder number 100.
Have to wonder, how would the film’s harshest critics prefer reminders of such loathsome violence be served up? Does anything ever really soften the blow?
Lee and Willmott are not careless with their subject. They are simply using a different means of telling this far too familiar story.