Spike Lee is currently shooting his latest film project, a film called Chiraq – a conflation of Chicago and Iraq. The provocative title exploits the moniker given to Chicago because of its violent reputation, where many of its denizens liken their environment to a war zone. Needless to say, he’s attracting a lot of media attention.
The use of Chiraq as his film’s title is undoubtedly opportunistic, but today’s urban race crisis is nothing new or even surprising, despite current mass media hyperbole. And looking back through Lee’s filmic legacy, it’s obvious that such a focus is the logical next step.
How does one provide a balanced portrayal of quotidian black urban experience? This is what has always been at the heart of Lee’s creative endeavour, right from his first film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads in 1983 (submitted as his Master’s thesis). Lee’s particular affection for his hometown neighbourhood led to a sustained screen treatment in six films to date, the so-called “chronicles of Brooklyn”. Running the gamut of differing formal and thematic possibilities, these films dramatise black Brooklyn through various frameworks. There’s woman-centred comedy, provocative socio-political drama, autobiographical family drama, gritty criminal social realism, father/son sports drama and African-American Christianity.
This array of approaches feature quite different formal techniques, from consciously contrived sets and meticulously planned storyboarding to hand-held camerawork and almost improvised scripts. Lee’s endless experimentation in how to best represent his own community is accompanied by what some critics see as a weakness, an inability to find closure in his films.
Yet this open-endedness should also be seen as a politically consistent understanding of how film might contribute to a better mediation of chronically repeating problems in US race relations.
In engaging with the remit of black American filmmakers, Lee has been outspoken in criticising those he sees as fuelling white racist stereotype. He provoked a public spat with black media mogul, Tyler Perry, who he accused of indulging “coonery and buffoonery” for his Madea films and House of Payne television series.
In a less confrontational way he tried to put the uncompromisingly violent aesthetics of the “hood” film (gangsta rap associated films made at the time of Rodney King and the last major black urban uprising, for example Boyz N the Hood) to a more productive end in Clockers. And in Bamboozled he dramatised how seductive complicity with white racist stereotype can be even for supposedly enlightened African-American entertainment entrepreneurs.
Lee’s feature films have also been augmented by powerful documentary films, most notably When the Levees Broke (2006) and its follow up, If God Is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (2010). Both look into the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’s black community and the state’s criminal neglect of the poorest section of society. Giving the unheard a direct voice has a particular political poignancy and efficacy entirely consistent with Lee’s larger mission for black American film-making.
Doing the right thing?
In Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee leaves the viewer suspended between Malcolm X’s advocacy of violent resistance and self-defence and Martin Luther King’s championing of non-violent civil disobedience in combating white racism. The unresolved ending leaves audiences with the responsibility to find answers through ongoing conversation outside the theatre.
These issues remain germane today. As a filmmaker who has consistently broached the thorny topic of white racism, Lee’s primary struggle has been to find a way to engage and subvert conventions and stereotypes associated with an issue that has not changed (indeed seems to have worsened) over the entire span of his career.
Doing the right thing as a black American film-maker is still fraught with representational dangers. This is only further complicated by the distance between successful black cultural producers and anything resembling an organised grassroots social movement – just look at the controversial exploitation of the Occupy Wall Street campaign by Jay-Z. No doubt Chiraq will provoke further questions about the responsibilities of African-American artists and cultural producers.
[Information has been leaked](Information has been leaked that the film is to be a musical comedy based on Aristophanes’s ancient Greek drama, Lysistrata. This suggests that Lee is seeking to break with convention and stereotype in the representation of the black inner city.
A drama centred on one woman’s campaign to end black-on-black violence through encouraging women to withhold having sex with their men (a modern take on the subject of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata) might provide a humanising and accessible way to understand how African Americans themselves can avoid deepening the wounds inflicted on them by the wider social, economic and political order.
It could remind us of how far the discourse of black empowerment is damagingly male-centred, rhetorically framed as overcoming emasculation and restoring black manhood. While Lee’s ability to retain final cut rights over many of his films has led to certain indulgences that have arguably compromised the quality of his films and undermined box-office potential, more vitally it has helped him maintain a relatively independent, angry auteurist view of the African-American future.