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What Oscar forgot: Finding Teyonah Parris' formation in Chi-raq

February 28, 2016

If anything, himself. 
First, Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015) is, especially upon one’s first viewing, an uneven, or at least unwieldly movie, and reactions to the film reveal it as such. After all, while the film garners only a 5.7 rating on IMDB, the film also topped Paste Magazine and The NewYorker’s best films of the year lists. The metamorphic girth of this satire makes it typical of Spike Lee’s artistic wheelhouse, which has less to do with George Lucas pastiche and Stephen Spielberg perfection than Woody Allen’s strolling rants. Even more, Spike Lee’s New York sensibility—his ranting away from traditional plot structures and streamlined coherence—places him in constellation with African-American satirists doubling as novelists.


Chi-raq is as much an heir to I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988) and Black Dynamite (2009) as it is a cousin of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015) and anything written by Percival Everett. Moreover, the sheer mass of the film’s pursuits is in the stratosphere of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952) which questioned the validity and soundness of living in a “dream world” decades prior to Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015). Ellison’s work has long held sway over Lee’s direction; scenes and image and concepts from Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) appear on screen as if lifted from Ellison’s pages. That earlier Lee effort, it should be noted, was welcomed on the bridge of two cinematic centuries rather coldly, yet, in hindsight, seems to have foretold the complex maps that are the careers of Kanye West and Dave Chappelle. And, then, there is Spike Lee’s constant clashing with the remnants of classic Greek culture. This clash links Lee’s aesthetic choices with the likes of Ishmael Reed’s post-modernist soup Mumbo Jumbo (1972).

The pronounced source material for Chi-raq is the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but the play is only one of many influences, acting more as a vehicle for social commentary on the roots of American law and order—Greek democracy. Lee, like Ishmael Reed or even Mark Twain, shatters the world with his satire by presenting its reflection to his audience through a fractured mirror. When he does this through an adaptation of an ancient Greek play, he does so to say, Shit’s been broken for a long time, which is to say, as the last lines of the film do say, “Wake up!”

Besides the early fears that Lee might have been exploiting Chicago’s gun violence for movie-making, which maybe he was, most negative reactions to the film struggled to grasp the dream world Lee created in the tradition of what Henry Louis Gates deems the signifying monkey, but all of these intentions and their roots were hidden in plain sight. Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes wasn’t rambling; he was citing sources and testifying. More importantly, while testifying to the present and citing the past, he was also testifying to the past and citing the present. And, through his narrative vision, the world is falling apart and coming together as it always has, meaning the continuity of traditional plotlines is a hoax. No wonder the chorus in bright suits is always laughing. He’s seen all of this before and knows he will see it again. Critics and directors, for the most part, are the same way.
While male violence and storytelling splice up the world and confuse time periods, the film is navigable due to its female performances. Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) starts strong and stays strong, while the younger Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) becomes strong.

Absurdly historical. 
The film begins with a map of the United States on screen; red, white and blue. A closer look reveals that the map is a collage of gun silhouettes. The style and shape of these silhouettes brings to mind the colors and fonts of an Ishmael Reed paperback. The screen then goes black. Eventually, song lyrics appear, revealing a paradoxical sentiment of pride in Chi-raq and criticism of Chicago; love and blame. One of the song’s last lines is “Dis story a fact.” Then the film becomes a public service announcement, flashing and announcing: “This is an emergency!” Statistics comparing the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Chicago are soon to follow. But the film’s introductory materials are not finished. The voice of Father Michael Louis Pfleger condones the 7,356 Chicago homicides as being “committed by young black males against young black males.” This sequence, to a large degree, is sensory overload and highly depressing.

At this point, my wife, who is pregnant, stated that she might be done with it. She wanted no part of its death. Yet this death wants a part of us. For death is always hungry.

The first real visual in the film that belongs to a movie and not a documentary is of the elevated Chicago subway. For anyone who is familiar with Spike Lee’s career, the sight of the tracks recalls one of his other films on urban gun violence, Clockers (1995), where the tracks represent a largely inconceivable escape beyond the city’s unruly frontiers of crime and drugs. Then, the camera in typical Spike Lee fashion descends to street level and tracks a killer standing in line outside of the club Da End Up.

Once inside the club, purple glow sticks rock back and forth over the heads of the crowd, marking the tempo of the club and the streets. Everything is synchronized and everyone chants, “Chi-raq! Chi-raq!” Dolmedes is on stage. He dances, but his playfulness almost betrays the intensity of the crowd. They did not come to hear him emcee their lives. They are largely unaware of his historical presence. They are dreaming.

He will freeze them in mid-chant. He will narrate. He will announce that the players in this film, who do not realize they are such, will speak in verse, in the “style of his times.” But are these modern times or Greek times? To Dolmedes, perhaps, these are the same. He will exit, and, in his place, will enter Chi-raq (Nick Cannon). He is also an emcee, but he is not blessed with a knowledge of antiquity. He knows only his city, and his city is composed of death and decay, as are his rhymes. As he raps over a syrupy beat that still manages to bang and pop, the crowd, mostly composed of young women, rolls their hips in unison, drops their hips in unison, makes love to the idea of violence in unison.

The synchronization is eerie, and Spike Lee’s ongoing conflict with the mass ornament of hip hop is well-pronounced. He has, after all, always preferred jazz and blues. To him, music should be about expression—about the soloist rising above the noise and the rhythm’s hypnosis—but in Chi-raq there is little to no jazz at the start of the film. And the rapper of the same name on stage delivers his message over movements of mass conformity. Lysistrata is front and center. Chi-raq kissed her when he came on stage. He has her blessing. As he raps, “What da fuck you posin’ for?” it will all come to an end. Gunshots shatter the dream and the charade of unity scatters in fear, as if speaking death’s name can bring it into being.

On the verge of iconic. 
However, in due time, Lysistrata will come to the same conclusions as my wife did. She will want no more of death, but in her first conversation with Miss Helen she will appear to relish it. And, in the scene before that, any foreplay between her and Chi-raq conflates violent conversations with pillow talk. Lysistrata quotes Biggie to Chi-raq, and he quotes Tupac to her. Are they lovers posing as rivals? Or are they rivals posing as lovers? This is the first time, but not the last that the film will discuss sex as an act of conquering violence. The problems in their world begin and end within the microcosm of a four-post bed, as the presence of Dolmedes suggests they always have and always will.

Not until Lysistrata encounters a mourning mother will she really start to hear Miss Helen, and at that point, she infiltrates the syrupy rhythms of hip hop’s mass ornament—of black culture—and orchestrates a protest against violence, using the female body as a weapon for life and love. Her movements and the movements of her followers will mimic the step lines that have been the face of black sororities for decades. They will harken back through the works of Reed and Ellison and Baldwin all the way back to Africa. The world is abuzz with Beyonce’s “Formation” lines, but Chi-raq and Teyonah Parris had a grip on this defiance well before the Super Bowl.  

Spike Lee is a controversial character. He mixes his art with politics, always has and always will. The formula does not always go down smoothly, but to critique too harshly for that is to make the assumption that art should go down smoothly, that to be stylized is to be streamlined. Chi-raq, like the city and country it critiques, comes glossed in rough edges and tangles of uncertainty. In kind, I understand the questions that undermine its acceptance as a successful satire. On the other hand, I don’t see how a person could not praise it for its daringness, which is embodied in Teyonah Parris’ performance. In Chi-raq, she is a long way from the soft spoken correctness of a Mad Men secretary and the self-hate of a confused college girl in Dear White People (2014). But, given the range displayed by her career’s early arc, she’s going to be around for quite some time, even if we miss seeing her at tonight’s Oscar parties.


Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys

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