As Western powers drop bombs throughout the Middle East, as mass shooters terrorize communities, and as Blue-on-Black violence reaches epidemic proportions, Spike Lee has come to save us all from the horrors of violence by putting the punany on lockdown.
Lee’s new movie, Chi-Raq, aims to use the ultra-violent Windy City’s analogous nickname and his own brand of editorializing through the form of satirical film to address Chicago’s and our nation’s unending bloodbath of uncontrolled gun violence. He offers a modern remix of Lysistrata, a Greek comedy written by Aristophanes, about a group of women pledging to withhold sex from their men to end the Peloponnesian War.
The film is set on Chicago’s South Side—sometimes referred to as Chi-Raq because of its epidemic of gang violence. In the film, Chi-Raq is also the name of a gang-banging quasi-rapper played by Nick Cannon who is deep into the thug life, and he is at perpetual war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), a rival gang leader. Both men’s existences begin and end with sex and murder.
When Patti, the 7-year-old daughter of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), is murdered by a stray bullet on a busy street in broad daylight, Chi-Raq’s gorgeous girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), has a crisis of conscience. Tired of the death and violence, she leaves Chi-Raq, and moves in with Helen (Angela Bassett), a wise elder sister who schools Lysistrata and her friends about a 2003 sex strike in Liberia, led by Leyman Gbowee, that helped put an end to that country’s civil war and earned Gbowee a Nobel Peace Prize.
Inspired, Lysistrata and her girl-gang friends (it’s not clear whether they’re full-blown gang members or just a scantily clad auxiliary group for their men) approach their rivals to broach the possibility of a sex strike. After some superficial resistance, they agree that something must be done, and agree to a “No Peace, No Pussy” movement. Never mind the root causes of poverty, unemployment, deindustrialization, police violence, mass school closures, hyper segregation, gun culture, narrow constructions of masculinity, and state violence, the solution is apparently just that simple: withhold sex from men, who are driven by libido more than anything else.
Lee says that Chi-Raq is “a cry for gun control.” Yet, the film turns complex political and social issues and the resulting tragedies into one-dimensional caricatures while presenting sexual slapstick as the solution to deeply rooted life-and-death horrors in an era of heartbreaking hashtags and the clarion calls: “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name.”
Lee fuses his trademark heavy-handed rants, many spoken by Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes; pens much of the script in rhyme; and offers his brand of satire as homage to both the Greek classic and the recent Liberian movement. The problem is that what’s happening in Chicago—and our nation—demands a much more thoughtful approach to real solutions. And even if Lee’s only intent is to raise consciousness (relevant facts are sprinkled throughout the movie) and incite positive social change, the fact that he’s centering the conversation on Black women’s bodies and sexuality is not only problematic, it’s dangerous.
Chicago is a cesspool of state violence. The city is reeling from a skyrocketing murder count, and desperately needs solutions. According to the Chicago Police Department there have been 429 murders, and 2,221 shootings this year. In September, the dismembered body parts of a toddler were discovered in a lagoon in a city park. Police still haven’t identified the child.
Right now, the recent national attention is on the case of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who was shot 16 times last year by police officer Jason Van Dyke, who claimed that McDonald was trying to attack him with a knife. Diligent news reporting and ultimately a court order led to the release of the dashcam video that contradicts Van Dyke’s version and reveals other discrepancies both in the officer’s claims, and in the overall police operation. The former officer was just recently charged with first-degree murder, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sacked the police chief.
This corruption is nothing new. Chicago police have been known for altering arrest reports, using racially derogatory terms, and widespread abuse. And though public pressure undoubtedly has played a role in Van Dyke being charged, the fact that it took 14 months to charge him, and the broader history, gives little hope that justice will prevail. It is clear that the City of Chicago would rather pay out huge sums to victims—$500 million in police brutality settlements since 2004—rather than do anything to fix its systemic problems.
And that $500 million might be part of the reason that the city is on the brink of bankruptcy. Back in September, USA Today reported that Chicago teachers started the school year without a labor contract, and the school system is mired in a monumental budget crisis. Up to 1,500 staff layoffs were expected, and the city estimates a $1.1 billion budget deficit for next school year. School closures, almost all of which has taken place in Latino and Black neighborhoods, further destroys communities, contributing to heightened gang violence. The motto for Chicago schools might as well be: “Segregated, Underfunded, and Closed.”
Segregation and poverty is equally systemic: One in five residents live in poverty. Black and Latino communities feel this disproportionately. “Chicago is at the very top of the list of big cities when it comes to Black poverty—at a shocking 32.2 percent as of 2009,” writes Alan Mass. “In the poorest neighborhoods, the poverty rate is closer to 50 percent—and, again, that’s using the federal government’s standards that understate poverty.”
Deferred orgasms aren’t going to fix these problems. From a goofy White mayor who boasts that because his wife is Biracial, he can crow about “banging Black booty,” to the young, beautiful, barely dressed women-on-strike in high-fashion chastity belts, Lee is peddling fantasies and cartoons that seem to ascribe super-powers to Black women’s sexual organs, as though pussy is a magic wand that can spark massive social consciousness and political change to heal our wounds, solve our deeply rooted multi-faceted issues and multigenerational traumas so we can all live happily ever after.
To offer satire—even if it is well done, which it’s not—in response to such horrid circumstances is irresponsible. The tragedies of almost daily murders are not the product of simple choices; it is the result of history, systemic divestment in communities of color, state violence, and White supremacy. It is about school closures and home foreclosures, which according to one study, contributes to violence. Had Lee included the partners of bankers and policy makers, school officials, and police officers, refusing to provide sex unless they stop STATE violence, Chi-Raq would have added to these discussions. Otherwise, it just is more of the same: putting the Black community on trial for its own deaths. And at the center are the bodies of Black women.
Chi-Raq contributes to a long-held tradition of citing Black women’s bodies as both the source and the solution to social problems. In the film, he has the movement completely rely upon the premise of hot young scantily clad women refusing to have sex with their gangsta men. The inference is that Black women have so much power and we can fix society if only we would use our sexual power. In other words, all the responsibility is on us—and our genitalia.
Does Lee have no sense of how dangerous, let alone ludicrous it is to reduce Black women’s activist contributions to “Pussy Power,” given the realities of Black women and rape culture? While the media is debating Chi-Raq, very few outlets are covering the trial of Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who is accused of raping 13 Black women. And predictably, those 13 victims’ credibility is being attacked, while Holtzclaw miraculously gets an all-White jury to decide his fate. We can see the business-as-usual unhappy ending from miles away.
And while we’re grappling with all of this, last week BET features notorious pedophile R. Kelly on its annual awards show being feted and adored by his fellow entertainers, and millions of fans who consider his musical talents sufficient enough to overlook his sex crimes.
Which is made all the more disturbing when you consider that 60 percent of Black girls have been sexually abused before age 18, according to the Black Women’s Blueprint. Likewise, the Department of Justice reports that only one out of five White women report their rapes, compared to one in 15 Black women.
This public-health crisis begs for serious discussions, not satire. As poet-writer Aja Monet writes in Forty Acres and a Fool: “Capitalism reinforces a geography of violence. Black people have been experiments of a failed democracy. Chicago was site of violent housing experiments that left many Black families displaced. Six million Black Americans fled the rural South to escape slavery and the war on Blackness during The Great Migration. It is, in fact, a war. We have been perpetually migrating. It has destabilized entire communities. We see it in land theft, policing, education, gang violence, drug abuse, mass incarceration, gender violence, media, literature etc. The war waged against Black people started long before Chicago’s current violent murder rates. Black skin is a uniform of war. Any murder, murders something inside of us all. Especially, when that murder is at the hand of a brother or sister. Spike Lee’s film and critique is a betrayal to the ancestors and what we have been fighting for. Only a fool would look to the film, Chi-Raq, to save lives.
In an era where Black women’s bodies are ticking time bombs and the targets of every war zone in Black America, we can’t afford to have Lee suggesting that our sexual organs are some kind of magic wand that, once properly waved, can magically solve treacherous, deeply entrenched policies designed to keep us down.
Contrary to the right-wing’s campaign against Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights, which they attacked with billboards calling our wombs the most dangerous place for African Americans, the most treacherous place for Black women these days is our own country, where we are routinely attacked, sometimes by people who look like us, and sometimes by an increasingly militarized police force designed to consign us to prison or graveyards. We can’t assess or even criticize our inner-community crime without looking objectively at the bigger picture and how all of the forces aligned against us are working together, some more deliberately and consciously than ever.
As film critic Ijeoma Oluo writes in the review, “Fuck You, Spike Lee,” “Women are reduced to walking vaginas … walking around in hot pants just waiting for the men to put down their guns for five minutes in order to sex them with their flesh guns. Women don’t work, they don’t have hopes or dreams, they don’t do anything but get fucked by dudes. And because that’s all they do, their vaginas have been imbued with such power that they can change the world. No, they don’t change the world with their intellect or their work, they change the world by refusing access to their golden vaginas.”
Films like Chi-Raq are a luxury we can’t afford in these times, if we ever could. For a powerful Black filmmaker to disregard our truths and demean our struggle is beyond irresponsible. It is contributing to the problem. If only Lee would follow the advice that Jackson’s character gives at the end of the film to “WAKE UP!,” we’d all be better off.