Quite typically, there’s a lot of controversy over the trailer for Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-raq. This happens every time Lee releases a new film. Every. Single. Time.
This time, folks are upset with Lee for the name of the film, a slang term merging the city of Chicago with the war-torn Middle Eastern country of Iraq and implying that the Midwestern American city is a war zone. Isn’t it? As of Nov. 6, there have been 2,587 shooting victims in Chicago this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. There were 2,587 shooting victims in all of 2014.
Then there’s the fuss about the content of Chi-raq’s trailer, featuring Dolmedes, played by Samuel L. Jackson—a favorite of Lee’s—dressed in a garish suit (and later drinking from a chalice, aka “a pimp cup”), narrating a film about Chicago’s violence with the same euphoric gusto of a circus ringmaster. There’s Cyclops, played by Wesley Snipes, who resurrects the enthusiasm for guns that he displayed as Nino Brown in 1991’s New Jack City. There’s a bald and tatted Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon in full-on Tony Montana machismo.
Then there’s a gaggle of scantily clad women, spurred on by Teyonah Parris as a woman named Lysistrata, a nod to Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play, from which Chi-raq’s premise of women denying men sex is derived. In a choreographed scene, reminiscent of Lee’s 1988 School Daze, the women chant that they will “deny all rights of access or entrance” until the violence stops.
A belligerent character played by Dave Chappelle rages, “The situation is out of control because I’m in front of an empty stripper pole!”
Admittedly, it’s a lot. But it’s also Spike Lee doing what Spike Lee does. He’s got a 30-year-long résumé of using his films to explore pressing issues in the black community, and doing so with unconventional methods. I mean, School Daze was a musical that tackled colorism (and many, many other topics). Bamboozled had characters in blackface, not to promote its use, but to explore the images of black people in entertainment.
For the folks who couldn’t make it past the 1:00 mark, the second half of the trailer strikes a more somber note. There’s Irene (Jennifer Hudson) crying in a church pew, a woman scrubbing a blood-stained sidewalk and a “Stop the Violence” protest.
But that wasn’t enough to stop folks from going off about Lee “selling out” black people or making a mockery of Chicago’s tragic violence.
“Twitter isn't gonna like Chiraq because it's satire and most of y'all don't know what that is,” wrote @JalenMosby on Twitter.
On Friday, Lee responded to the trailer’s controversy in a video, which included a second, more serious trailer for Chi-raq.
“Chi-raq is not a comedy. It’s a satire,” Lee said in his address. “There’s a difference between humor and comedy. In no way, shape or form are we not respectful of the situation that is happening in Chi-raq. … This film is about serious business.”
He added, “There’s an old statement, ‘I got to laugh to keep from crying.’ That’s apropos with Chi-raq. Don’t get it twisted.”
Lee never should have had to explain this. If nothing else, the man made Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, which reign high in the cinematic canon of films. You really think Spike Lee—Spike Lee, who has a long-running history of defiantly speaking out about racism and injustice for almost 30 years—is going to pull at full 180 and start joking about dead black kids?
Even if viewers are unsure about Chi-raq’s original trailer, Lee deserves some the benefit of the doubt here before folks start calling for protests and boycotts. At least see the film first so you actually know what you’re protesting, and if it’s even worth it.
Lee explains in his response that the film is satire, but the premise, the part about women withholding sex, isn’t as far-fetched as folks would want to believe. In 2011, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize after she organized an effective “sex strike” in her country. In 2002, Gbowee encouraged Christian and Muslim women to refuse sex until the violence in her country ended. (You can read all about it in her autobiography, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War.) Sex strikes have also been put to use in Colombia, Togo and the Philippines.
Lee’s second trailer for Chi-raq is stripped of its humor and focuses more on an indignant and justifiably angry character played by Angela Bassett, who is longing for a time when mothers could send their children outside to play without fear. She implores her community to “save the babies!” In another scene, a group of women do a roll call of all the men and boys that they’ve lost. There’s also John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan preaching to his flock, “We cannot allow this self-inflicted genocide to continue!” The trailer closes with Samuel L. Jackson yelling, “Wake up!” just as Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) did at the end of School Daze.
Maybe this time around, the outraged viewers of the first Chi-raq trailer will get it.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.