This week the trailer for Spike Lee‘s latest movie came out and I was pleasantly surprised. Seeing Red Hook Summer and simply hearing about the vampire plot of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, I had lowered my expectations-somewhat-when I heard rumblings of a new Spike Lee movie. The film Chi-Raq, a term coined by Chicago rappers that compares the city’s gun violence to battlefields in Iraq, has been controversial from the start thanks to its title. Many Chicagoans, including Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, said the title cast the entire city in a negative light. Others wondered how Lee, a notoriously proud Brooklynite, could make a film about such a complex local issue. All are valid critiques and responses I would probably have if a director who wasn’t from New York sought to tackle an issue that is unique to Queens. Nonetheless, as someone with an immense amount of respect for Spike Lee as a filmmaker, I came into the trailer with an open mind.
The trailer immediately announces the film’s high-stakes as the words “This is an Emergency” flash across the screen. The world of Chi-Raq is introduced, where local gangs, led by Nick Cannon (a questionable casting choice for a number of reasons) and Wesley Snipes, don purple and orange and exchange rounds of gunfire in the middle of the night. The film presents an updated retelling of the Greek comedy, Lysistrata, where the women of Athens withhold sex in order to convince their men to end their war with the Spartans. I certainly am no expert on ancient plays, so I found the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson as the narrator/Greek chorus and the women’s means of ending the rampant gang violence to be a surprising and intriguing take on the issue (though I do hope their roles are expanded beyond serving the sexual needs of their male partners). A number of A-list actors including Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and John Cusack are featured in the film, along with Dear White People‘s Teyonah Parris in the lead role. The bright color palette of orange and purple, combined with Lee’s signature close-up dolly shots, make for gorgeous images.
A number of Chicago natives responded negatively to the trailer, and rightfully so. The use of satire and other comedic elements is a surprising choice, especially considering how serious and damaging this issue has been to an entire city. These emotions are certainly at a peak due to the tragic loss of a 9-year-old boy who was targeted and killed by gang members earlier this week. However, as Lee points out in an interview with Chicago Magazine, filmmakers and other artists have used satire in the past to tackle serious issues (case in point: Do the Right Thing).
Like many, I am curious to see how Spike Lee combines these highly stylized elements, from spoken word poetry to sweeping crane shots, with the film’s more emotional scenes as families are torn apart by the city’s gang violence. I will certainly be heading to theaters this December to find out.
Author’s Note: To hear Lee’s response to criticism of the trailer and see new scenes from the movie, click here. For another perspective, read this excellent piece in Salon about African-American directors and the burden of representation.
Bonus: Da New Yawk Joint
In a short film for the annual New York Marathon, Spike Lee shows why New York is the best city in the world. I loved that he highlighted the diversity of the city’s residents plus, my favorite team, the Mets. Check it out for some gorgeous cinematography and Lee’s famous jazz melody from Do the Right Thing.