Difficult social problems are fiendishly difficult to communicate. For, these are issues about which experts disagree and citizen-voters, too. The causes are unclear, the solutions are unclear, and then there is the ideological deadweight that tends to drag meaningful debate and discussion all the way down to seedy depths. Above all, public debate on complex social problems also leads to framing battles: you frame the discussion to privilege the ‘solution’ you want. So, for instance: what do we do about homelessness in our cities? If you don’t want public funds spent on it, you frame it as an individual responsibility issue. You argue that the homeless need to pull themselves up by the straps of their dirty sneakers. If you want public funds spent on the problem, you frame the issue as a structural challenge. You ask for a focus on unemployment, targeted welfare schemes, improved care for the mentally ill and so on.
‘Chi-Raq’, Spike Lee’s new movie, tackles a horrendously difficult problem: the horrific and persistent gang violence in inner cities in the United States of America (and, by implication, several such places across the globe). His setting is the South Side of Chicago. The title of the movie is a play on Chicago and Iraq. The movie opens with these stunning statistics: while American deaths in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011 came to 4,424, between 2001 and 2015 there were 7,356 homicides in Chicago. Think about that for a second: 7,356 homicides.
As the movie opens, this rush of gruesome facts and a blood-curdling chant:
Police sirens, Everyday
People dyin’, Everyday
Mamas cryin’, Everyday
Fathers trying’, Everyday.
The bloodletting in places like the South Side of Chicago divides opinions almost violently. Some people blame the people who live in such places. Others blame deep structural problems. The topic is so divisive that it even polarizes and bedevils academic social science. For instance, after binge-watching the great television series, The Wire, set in inner city Baltimore in the US, I bought a collection of seminal studies edited by Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard: The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth. In the introductory chapter, Patterson explains that academic work on the challenge of understanding the inner cities has been so riven with contention the temptation is to give up and say 'reality is complex' and 'everybody is right'! (Page 8). In particular, the academics who stress the role of culture and those who stress the role of structural factors have literally been at one another’s throats, liberally dishing out abuse, imputing ugly motives to rival scholars, suggesting that white sociologists should stay out of the debate, and so on.
Yet this terrifically difficult subject is what the movie maestro Spike Lee (I have been a fan of his work ever since he burst on the scene) takes on. What does he do with it? I want to discuss the movie without giving the story away because I want you to watch it. The movie is currently in theatres, then it will be available on Amazon Prime because Amazon funded it. Spike Lee does four things in ‘Chi-Raq’.
First, he arrests your attention and does not let go till the end. The movie is a riot of poetry, laughter, tears, sex, dance and much else besides. It explodes on you like nothing you have ever seen, and keeps surprising you till the very end. Second, ‘Chi-Raq’ exhibits both formal integrity and brilliance. By formal integrity I mean it works as a movie. And this is important because artistic works about difficult social or political issues often stray into preachiness and tendentiousness. ‘Chi-Raq’ does not. As Spike Lee said to Charlie Rose only this week, the balance between making people laugh and making them cry, entertaining them and making them care about an issue, is a difficult one to strike, but I can testify that he pulls it off in this movie. His key device is to go back to classical Athens and take Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata (411 BCE) and, together with his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, reimagine it as a comedy-satire-musical set in the very heart of black America -- a gorgeously effective and riotously funny conceit.
Third, Lee educates his audience with great force and eloquence. He machine-guns statistics onto the screen, he stages intense debates, he deploys singeing eloquence in the person of a famous white preacher working in the ghetto, and he deploys an unforgettable one-man chorus, Dolmedes (played with uproarious flamboyance by Samuel L. Jackson). So effective is the education ‘Chi-Raq’ delivers that Lee covers all sides of the debate about what is going on in the inner cities: structural issues, cultural issues, and the role of individual responsibility. The treatment is frank and unflinching, and if Spike Lee had not been an African American notable I doubt that anyone would have financed the movie for fear of provoking an uproar. It takes someone of his stature to say what the movie says as bluntly as it does.
Above all, ‘Chi-Raq’ makes you think about these issues, and it demolishes your indifference. It forces you to care. As he told Charlie Rose, the movie is ‘heightened reality’. It is on a grand, operatic scale. The bathetic scenes make you want to cry and they stay with you; the comic scenes make you laugh so hard it hurts; and the music and the dancing…what pure joy! The director cuts loose. Above all, the main characters are loud, brash but powerfully arresting figures. I have mentioned Dolmedes. You should see his suits. These other ones have stayed with me: Chi-raq the gang leader and thug played by Nick Cannon, Cyclops the rival gangster and thug played by Wesley Snipes, Father Mike Corridan played powerfully by John Cusack and, above all, Lysistarata played with a Beyoncé -topping sensuality, flagrant sexuality and compelling elan by newcomer Teyonah Parris. Hers is a star-making performance.
The overall effect is an unforgettable experience, and one that makes you want to do something about the problem that the movie tackles.
Try to see it if you possibly can.
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Photos via the film's official website, all rights reserved.