What’s wrong with Spike Lee’s Chi-raq trailer?

Does it matter that the satirical hood film doesn’t have an easy in for every audience?

Yesterday, Complex published a piece about Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly. It described the ‘overwhelming blackness’ of Lamar’s important album. An album not easily accessible, but holding a practically impenetrable cultural significance. So that’s why we ate it up. Could the same be argued for Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed film Selma, which was assuredly snubbed of its much-deserved Academy Award? Probably not, because it was a brilliant film that still holds up. Yet at the time of release it was veiled in an air of importance.

This was not only a film about black struggles, but by a black female filmmaker. Maureen Dowd proclaimed Selma as “Not Just a Movie” in the New York Times. Regardless of artistic merit, films that bring history to the masses aren’t easily dismissable. Yesterday, Do the Right Thing director Spike Lee released a trailer for his upcoming film, Chi-raq. It’s a satire about gang violence, which seems a tricky subject to manoeuvre no matter your race or closeness to the subject matter. So what are white people supposed to make of it? (Full disclosure: I’m totally white.)

Upon watching the trailer, it’s difficult not to peg this as a hood film. It has all of the characteristics: a predominantly African-American cast (bar John Cusack), struggles of intra-racial violence and a backing hip hop track that goes “People dyin’ / Erryday / Mama’s cryin’ / Erryday”. Typically, the hood genre trades in heavy subject matter. Poverty, gun violence, racial discrimination. They are, for the most part, serious, save for a small selection which sends up the genre’s tropes. Chi-raq is a satire. However, it’s not clear exactly what it’s criticizing with humour. More Americans have been murdered in Chicago in the last 15 years than have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. In 2014 alone, Chicago clocked a total of 411 murders, 1,342 rapes, 9,804 robberies and 12,531 aggravated assaults, according to the FBI.

The violence is real. No wonder the trailer’s release raised some digital eyebrows in the black community:

What is the takeaway from this for someone embedded in Chi-town’s south side, where drive-bys and brutal murders are a daily occurance whether or not Samuel L. Jackson is present in a Colonel Mustard two-piece? This short trailer hardly communicates what we can expect, but it already sets up the film to be “critic-proof” with its controversial labelling of Chicago as Chi-raq. That’s one heavy statement.

Chi-raq could be the latest entry in the canon of art that is lionised due to the significance and ubiquity of its subject. Yet it’s ambiguous how deep the satire goes. Do all the black stereotypes that pervade this short clip diminish its effect? The speech is affected, the booties be rubbed and the fingers be snapped. How does a white person grapple with this? Is it a parody of black culture? Where is our “in”?

Frankly, it doesn’t matter. White people don’t need an in; we certainly don’t need another film about us. We just need curiousity and understanding. This film is either interesting to you or not interesting to you. So let’s try and understand. Chi-raq is based on ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. In order to end the Peloponnesian War, Lysistrata convinced the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their men to propogate a peace broker to end the war. Spike Lee is transposing that story to the streets of Chicago, a place where the reality of conflict is staggering.

In his telling, Chicago’s south side takes centre stage – Englewood in particular. A child is murdered and to curb the violence that plagues America’s so-called “Murder Capital”, the women band together to withhold sex from their male counterparts, hoping to put a stop to the gang violence. The cast is phenomenal – Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson. Even Kanye West was attached at one point.

As a white person, I have no right to be offended by Lee’s portrayal of black people. I did wonder though, after one women declares “All to tha bang bang” before firing her finger gun, what the message was here. How am I meant to perceive this ‘overwhelming blackness’? It remains a mystery how much of a parody of black culture Chi-raq claims to be. Any final verdict will have to wait until the film’s release, and perhaps even long after that. Until then, I can only hide behind my white excitement for another Spike Lee ‘joint’.