If you are boycotting Chi-Raq on principle, I definitely respect that.
But if you are going to critique it, you definitely are going to have to watch it first.
Full disclosure: I too had my issues with Spike Lee’s latest project. First, there is the reality that Lee’s non-documentary works has been somewhat confusing, heavy-handed and disjointed as of late. More specifically Red Hook Summer and Da Blood of Jesus.
I get down with experimental art house. But if it ain’t connecting, it ain’t connecting.
Another reason for my trepidation is the film’s stated plot itself, which centers around Black women orchestrating a sex strike as an answer to inner-city Chicago gun violence.
Yes, I know that it is inspired by the 4th– century Greek comedy Lysistrata. And yes I know that it was also inspired by the Liberia Sex Strike. I saw the movie, remember.
However, when does the knowledge of the inspiration of something, particularly an artful something, shield it from critique?
And more importantly, just because an artist was inspired by an actual event doesn’t mean he or she has given its muse proper tribute or even context.
What I mean is, the Liberia Sex Strike, as it would come to be christened by the Western media, was only one small action in a much more involved non-violent campaign for peace in the West African nation.
The peace movement was founded and lead by a group called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. And under the leadership of two social workers named Leymah Gbowee and Comfort M. Freeman, thousands of women from across the religious and ethnic tribe spectrum engaged in non-partisan action aimed at ending the four-year civil war that killed in upwards of 200,000 people, displaced millions, raped women and girls and turned boys into child soldiers.
In addition to the highly sensationalized sex strike, the women activists who would dress in all white to symbolize unity also led daily prayer vigils and demonstrations at local fish markets, the presidential offices, and the Guinean and American embassies. Likewise they sent letters, petitions and forced meetings with political leaders as well as the international community. In fact, it would be a series of WLMAP protests outside of both President Charles Taylor and the warlord rebels compounds that would force all sides to peace talks in Ghana.
Through a massive sit-in, the women held the waring men up in a room, denying them both food and water until an agreement was reached. And when those peace talks threatened to sour, it was a WLMAP protests that again kept them at the table. As reported by Tavaana.org:
“Unwilling to tolerate another month of dead-end negotiations, 200 women held a sit-in at the peace talks in Ghana, demanding that the parties come to a conclusion. Authorities attempted to arrest them, but to no avail. When negotiators tried to exit, Gbowee and the women threatened to strip off their clothes, an act that would shame male delegates.”
During a 2011 address at the Olso Freedom Forum, Gbowee spoke in her own words about that particular action at the peace talks:
“So people ask me what is it about a woman stripping naked that makes people run? Or even make the conscious of a group of men who have paid and drugged boys to rape these same women to wake up. The thing is, when you are raped in conflict; when you are stripped naked in conflict, it is against your will. When a group of women, or when a group of people, get to the place where they decided that ‘I am going to give you the last shred of my dignity, that is something to even wake anyone up. Even the most heartless dictators. The peace agreement was signed three weeks after this action.”
When western media focused solely on the sex strike it did so at the expense of erasing efforts of these activists who used whatever was at their disposal – including their brains, mouths, pens and bodies – to bring peace to Liberia. When we focus solely on the sex strike, we strip those women naked against their will.
And unfortunately, Chi-Raq is guilty of the same transgression.
Without giving too much away, the film relied heavily on selling Black women as sex objects to push the narrative. It was not only at times distracting, but it also acted counter revolutionary to the filmmakers stated aims, which was to use women to empower a community.
In spite of a several strong lead performances, women characters in the film were virtually voiceless and one-dimensional. Oh, they spoke and had lines. But when they spoke, most of their dialog centered around men, their desire for sex with men and the relation of all of that to their autonomy (aka The Pussy). There was no talk or even challenge the misogynist attitudes or even sexual violence, which is often waged at their expense.
Most ironic is the scene of the film when the girlfriend and wives of the two opposing Chicago street gang leaders finally reveal the terms of their protests to their partners. The terse yet rhythmic (most of the film is done in rhyming prose) conversation happens in the kitchen as the women slave away over the stove making their men – and only their men – dinner.
Unlike the women of Liberia, who went as far as deny food and drink to the men for peace, in Lee’s vision of women empowerment women are still beholden to patriarchal ideas of feminine duties and responsibilities including fixing your man a plate. You know, because you can deny men “your power (aka sex)” for the cause of peace, but to deny him a plate of fried chicken and some collards is a bridge to damn far.
Worse, the male-centric dialog and the hyper-sexualized, impromptu dance scenes, which featured the women in scantly-clad military fatigues engaged in a lot of body gyration and touching, is for no reason at all.
In one particularly confusing sequence, the main character, named Lysistrata, and her sex-strikers take command of a military base by seductively teasing a high-ranking White official in Confederate flag underwear (representative of White supremacy) with the promise of sex.
It was a dangerously sick narrative, which might play well into the pornographic fantasies of heterosexual men, but it also disregards the fine line in consciousness we Black women have to walk to not be judged as Jezebels and Sapphires. Likewise, it is a narrative that disregards the ways in which rape and sex has historically been used as weapons by our oppressors against Black women. As there was no sex appeal strong enough that freed our ancestors (and womankind) from the slave labor of the plantation, no more than there is for us free Black descendants who are routinely accused of being prostitutes to this day.
At times it is hard to tell if the film, or its gender politics, were even meant to be taken serious. The film, which centers around several heavy topics, was at times whimsical and downright silly. Likewise, the acting was exaggerated, the characters were cartoonish (in particular Wesley Snipes whose comedic timing was superb), and the moralism in some scenes were heavy-handed in its blatancy.
As I watched the film, I began to wonder if Lee was attempting to pull off a bigger guise here? What I mean is that for a man who has been pretty vocal about the representations of Blacks in film in television and who has publicly taken issue with the system that only allows certain people to tell certain stories, I wondered if Lee had intentionally took a has out of their playbook to make a point? And perhaps this entire film was Lee’s attempt at a wink and nod at our acceptance of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained or one of Tyler Perry’s productions.
In the interest of giving an iconic Black director the benefit of the doubt, I would need to watch the film again.
However it only takes one viewing to see that if Lee was hoping to breathe life into an often misrepresented story of women activists in Liberia, he really missed the mark.