“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the flip side of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right –popular culture can be a vast wasteland of bubbling crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime. We’ve used this space to point out the magnificent in genres as diverse as screwball comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
And not all entries in The Ten Percent need the passage of time to declare their brilliance. The focus on this column is not even a year old yet, but is already a worthy member of The Ten Percent. Creative, sharply written, well-acted, pointed in its satire, and filmed with care, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is unlike anything else you’re likely to see.
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!
With those words, Spike Lee’s re-telling of Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata begins. We’re told to “Wake up!” at the beginning and at the very end of this brutal satire – just as Lee did 25+ years ago with Do the Right Thing and it seems logical to use that phrase as a set of cinematic bookends, since it appears we haven’t learned a damn thing since then.
Chi-Raq deserves to be seen on the big screen, but rent it and issue invitations to your neighbors who are old enough to be frightened by the fact that gun violence in our country has reached levels that seem to only have one direction – up – and that many, many citizens seem to have thrown in the towel, insisting that the only solution to this plague is yet more guns in yet more places. (Oh, and bulletproof sleeping mats for napping kindergartners.)
Before I go into specifics about why you ought to carve time out to see a film about gangs, senseless violence, sex, and the power of women, let’s clear one thing up right now. Lee took a great deal of heat for this film – in part, due to some odd interviews he’s given after the release of the film. But a lot of the pearl-clutching criticism comes from people shooting off their mouths about the film being “exploitative” and “disrespectful.” He’s been called the equivalent of a carpetbagger – that Brooklyn so-and-so coming in to Chicago to tell us what our problems are!
So – a quick lesson on Lysistrata and satire. To begin with, I was thrilled when one review mentioned that the source material is a play “that you’ve probably never heard about unless you’ve taken some (perhaps advanced) literature courses in college.” I teach about that play in my first-year, open-to-folks-with-no-prerequisite introduction to theatre course. Now – satire versus parody. Think of “parody” as mimicking something (or someone) specifically in order to create a humorous effect. It has no other purpose but to entertain. “Satire” is broader, involving mimicking something general in order to comment on something broader, with the intent of commenting on the society that created the subject, often with the idea of changing it. Parody wants you simply to laugh; satire wants you to think. The Scary Movie franchise (and its assorted ilk) is a parody on the genre of teen horror movies (and you need to understand the specific references to “get” the jokes), while Mel Brooks’ hilarious Blazing Saddles is a satire on racism.
Lysistrata is a satire – and a biting one. No, of course withholding sex isn’t going to end war – for one thing, if the men are all off at war, who’s around to be affected by the sex strike? But nevermind – it’s a play, and as Shakespeare reminds us in Hamlet, the play’s the thing. With Chi-Raq, Lee keeps the broad framework and the Greek flavor – the warring gangs are the “Trojans” and the “Spartans” (standing in for the Crips and the Bloods), there’s a coffeehouse called the “Deus Ex Machina,” the women await the peace talks in a fortified location, plus you’ve got Cyclops, Oedipus, and a very wise “Miss Helen.” Most importantly, Lee kept the fact that the sex strike is undertaken by the women because it’s the only power they have. These women feel helpless in their own community and want to end the bloodshed. In ancient Greece, women had very little power – political or otherwise. In our society, women have more power, but often don’t claim it. And until you claim that power, it’s very easy to think men just want One Thing.
Oh, and did I mention that Lee keeps the whole thing in rhyming couplets? Greek comic plays were known for rhyming structure and broad, coarse language (many weren’t translated into English until the 19th century – it was felt that if you could read them in the original Greek, you were too sophisticated to be sullied by jokes about impotence, randy men, and hot-to-trot women. The Victorians were weird). Lee co-wrote the screenplay with film academic Kevin Willmott, who wrote the devastating satire C.S.A. – The Confederate States of America in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War. (Do check that one out, too.) And do not forget that satire is intended to be funny and Chi-Raq has laugh-out-loud points. I think that’s probably what’s confusing people – the situation is serious; how can you find humor in it? (Well, re-watch Blazing Saddles and ask yourself that question again.) Hearing Dave Chappelle play an upset club owner whose “talent” has joined the striking women shout that “the situation’s out of control/’Cause I’m in front of an empty stripper pole!” makes that point rather eloquently.
Go see this movie. Angela Basset as Miss Helen will move your heart, John Cusack as a liberal Catholic priest who grew up in the neighborhood (and is based on real-life Father Michael Pfleger) will stir up your outraged sense of justice, Jennifer Hudson will make you weep (oh, there’s one scene that just her and the swish-swish of a scrub brush that will stay with me for a long time). As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is transcendent and Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq (the title isn’t about him as a person, though – he took that nom de street from the location) astonished me. And there’s a sniggering Wesley Snipes and don’t forget Samuel L. Jackson as the honest-to-Zeus Greek chorus, guiding us through the action. (And keep an eye on his canes.)
Chi-Raq is a harsh movie. But the fact that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the last few years than were killed in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is harsher. Lee’s never been afraid to take on the troubling topic of black-on-black violence and in Chi-Raq, he’s created a movie you ought to look straight in the eye.
Truly, it deserves to be placed in The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.