Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ and the real life Laquan McDonald video

I liked Spike Lee’s new movie “Chi-Raq,” the story about the gang wars and all the lives lost in the war zone that is Chicago.


The politicians and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel won’t like it. But that’s OK.

After it was over, I thought there was one more thing Lee could do for Chicago. He should sell his Knicks courtside seats, forget New York for a while and stick around here to watch the mayor remove the political stones from his shoe in a heater case.

Because a new film — actually a video — premieres in a day or two. And this one is nothing like “Chi-Raq.”

This one is a silent video from a police dash cam. It is said to depict a Chicago cop pumping 16 rounds into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a young man stretched on the pavement, twitching as the bullets enter his body.

So in the video, unlike “Chi-Raq” there is no music or dancing, no phallic references or thrusting hips. No beautiful women denying sexual favors to gangbangers until the mean boys drop their guns and stop the killing and become men.

I couldn’t help wonder what Lee might do with the McDonald story: white cop emptying his gun, black kid with a knife and PCP in his system, activists primed, City Hall making with the intrigue, Cook County politicians playing the game and creaky old Rev. Jesse Jackson in the wings.

There will be more on the McDonald case, and, as I told you last week, there will be criminal charges, and the cop doing the perp walk for the TV cameras and more denunciations from City Hall. Only then will the video be released, likely on Thanksgiving eve, and we’ll have plenty to talk about over turkey and dressing.

For now, though, let’s talk about “Chi-Raq,” Lee’s take on the ancient bawdy sex comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes.

“Lysistrata” is a low-brow fantasy about women who hold a sex strike to end the bloody Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Lee sets his war between Chicago street gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, and although that’s disrespectful to the Athenians who are cut out, it’s Spike’s movie, not mine.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the narrator, Dolmedes, and in his wild pastel suits he’s like some old 47th Street slickster back in the day, holding a cane with the head of a wolf or some creature on the knob. His booming voice mocks his world, telling us the play was written “In the year 411 B.C. That’s before Baby Jesus, y’all.”

It’s worth seeing. The movie works. But it’s all so sexified, it might not be for the pearls-at-the-throat Masterpiece Theater crowd.

There’s nothing wrong with pearls, or afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches, but then “Chi-Raq” isn’t for that audience. It wasn’t made for white liberals or the black middle class who sit at their dinner parties and natter on and on about Chicago violence, as if their fine talk of concern will change anything.

“Chi-Raq” isn’t about their grievances, or of their world any more than it is the world of white suburbanites. Here, the aggressions aren’t political or rhetorical. Instead, guns spit in the night and bodies hit the floor.

And Lee knows his target audience: urban African-Americans who live in the news stories long after we rush off to some other crime scene with fresh blood and fresh pain. They’re the sullen young men with the guns and the women left to clean up. “Chi-Raq” reaches that audience, and so, by any measure, the movie works.

Jennifer Hudson plays such a woman, taking brush and bucket to wash her slain daughter’s blood from the sidewalk.

Because the movie is stylized, the blood isn’t particularly convincing, and by being unreal the audience is given a safe, emotional distance.

It is bright red as she scrubs away, the red of a child’s tempera paint set.

But sidewalk blood is never red the day after a killing. Sidewalk blood is black and dark brown and bumpy where it clots hard, and it clings to the concrete as if it had nails.

If you know Hudson’s back story — the tragedy she suffered when members of her family were killed in Chicago a few years ago — when she weeps, you can’t help but think she’s weeping for them too.

And now about the vulgarity. Understand this is a sex strike, so there are never-ending references to genitals. In Aristophanes’ time and later there were leather phalluses, worn by actors.

Spike Lee didn’t make a drawing room comedy of manners like Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” So there is no polite tittering through the nose or against the back of a hand. The people of “Chi-Raq” laugh loudly, with their heads back, at the low body humor of the streets of ancient Athens and of today’s Chicago.

(Oh, and before I forget, SPOILER ALERT, the mayor of Chicago is depicted as something of an idiot in a pharaoh costume.)

Are the politics too easy? Yes. Parts are so liberal, didactic and patronizing that it will turn off those who aren’t of the left. And I’m definitely not of the left. So, it’s not a perfect film. Still, I liked it. And I’d pay to see it again.

But first I have to see the second part of this Chicago Thanksgiving double feature, the silent video with Laquan McDonald on the ground, and the cop’s gun going off, again and again and again.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is[email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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