Tag: Race Relations

Review of Chiraq

3 stars

“Chiraq” a weird, over-the-top spectacle

Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is surreal, meta, and over-the-top. I admire the whole film for its boldness of vision, even if it is not always pulled off well. When it works, it is a wonder to behold. For all the stylistic flourishes in the film that do not work, there are many that do. The film begins with a breathtaking image of the United States split into thirds of red, white, and blue, and guns and rifles making up the states. This works despite its heavy-handedness, mostly because it is creative, and it got my attention.

The film is based on the classic Greek comedy, “Lysistrata”, and updated to the present day in Chicago. It keeps the characters names, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The main female protagonist is Lysistrata, who is in a relationship with a rapper with the stage name Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon. Lysistrata gets the idea from a neighbor played by Angela Bassett to go on a sex strike and round up all the other heterosexual black women in Chicago to strike with her, until the men stop shooting each other.

This premise does not translate seamlessly to modern America; I would even say that, as a resident of the Chicago area, with the exception of some shots and references, the film did not give me a strong Chicago vibe. It kind of felt like it could have taken place anywhere in America, and this is probably because Spike Lee is not from Chicago. With Spike being a Brooklyn native,  I got more of a sense of place and location from films he directed like “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is because a) he is most familiar with NYC and b) Chicago, at least for me, has never been as conspicuous on film, as cities like NY or LA. Despite this, Chi-raq worked somewhat as a stinging commentary on race and violence in America as a whole, even if Chicago may have been a generic backdrop, that served little purpose besides its provocative nickname.

One of the things about the film that works surprisingly well is that it is spoken in iambic pentameter. The dialogue mostly rhymes, and after a while, I was having fun guessing and anticipating the characters’ rhymes.  A rhyme that worked especially well was “strike” and “dyke”.

Another powerful aspect of the film is John Cusack, as the compassionate Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Rev. Mike Pfleger; he has a deeply moving scene, where he preaches to a black congregation about their “self-inflicted genocide”. This scene may be the best piece of acting that John Cusack has ever done.

“Chi-raq” may be somewhat bloated, with a reach that exceeds its grasp, and it has moments that are so over-the-top that I just had to cringe. Yet, what does work has a sort of go for broke power that, by the end, left me haunted and shook up, and feeling like I saw an imperfect, yet vital piece of cinema.






Review of Dear White People

Featured image

3 stars

“Dear White People” a provocative, uneven, sporadically funny satire 

I did not find “Dear White People” to be by any means perfect, yet either way, the moral center of the film, Lionel, the guy whose Afro is being poked in the poster, got to me on a deeper level than any character in a movie has in a long time. The film is a loosely plotted satire of race relations in America, using Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college as the backdrop. The title refers to the outrageous radio show of mixed race student Samantha White, who always starts her show with a smug sort of witticism of white people, and how they try to enhance their street cred, by having a couple black friends to avoid seeming racist, or reciting Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics just so they can say the “N word” when black people aren’t looking.

As simplistic as this sounds, it almost seemed as if first-time director Justin Simien made a point to have no sympathetic white characters in the film. Just about all the white students in the film try really hard to “act black”. While I understood the point the film was making, it came off too much of the time as a racially charged “Mean Girls”, which was most of the time more cringe-inducing than funny.

The film begins with a report of a riot at a Halloween frat party. The concept of the party is rather shocking and alarming, but realistic; it is revealed toward the end of the movie, so I do not want to reveal it here. In a way, “DWP” may do nothing for any movement, racial or otherwise, since it paints the white students as wrong, and just about all the black students as misguided at worst and righteous freedom fighters at best.

Lionel, played by child star Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris”, is the most likable character in the film, by leaps and bounds. I found him utterly relatable. In addition to being gay, like I am, he is insecure, vulnerable, yet he is able to use irony as a defense mechanism. What he does to a homophobic white frat boy, toward the end, is priceless. Even though he is pretty intelligent, Lionel is out of place, for the most part, at Winchester. He does not identify with the blacks because, as he says, he listens to Mumford and Sons and his favorite director is Robert Altman. In addition, the aggressive, testosterone fueled white frat boys obviously would not and do not get along with Lionel.

Even though as a character, I loved Lionel dearly, and found him nuanced and understated, I found too many of the other characters, especially the white, homophobic frat boys, to be over-the-top stereotypes, contributing to the overall unevenness of the film. In one particularly cringe-inducing scene, the main frat boy exposes himself to Lionel, and even if this was supposed to show how awful and inhuman of a person he is, it just does not work. It is much more wince-inducing than actually funny.

One of the good things about the film is that it was loosely plotted, and for the most part, it was more concerned with getting a feel for some of the characters. Tessa Thompson is excellent as Samantha White, who is of mixed race, and is so conflicted that as a film major, she pretends her favorite director is Spike Lee, when it is really Ingmar Bergman. She is also romantically involved with the white TA. Tessa Thompson is beautiful, and her character of Sam is tough yet vulnerable.
Another interesting character is Cholondrea, who legally changed her name to “Coco”, and desperately wants to fit in with the white crowd. As contrived as some of this material is, it has a fair degree of meaning, because so many young people, myself included, want to feel like they belong, and may go to great lengths to do so. Many people may have deep issues that they are working out and sometimes it is hard to know whether you should just “be yourself” or simply assimilate. For whatever does not work, the statement that this film makes is utterly valuable, especially for young people struggling with their identity.