Spike Lee asked if I wanted my money back. I surveyed the auditorium full of New Balances, stale khakis and the stench of pretension seeping from under the liberal veneer. White intellectuals. Suburbanites. My oblivious white film student peers. A pitifully short row of weary black parents in t-shirts and wristbands commemorating their dead, bullet-ridden children.
I did want my money back. As a proud Chicagoan, born on the southside and raised on the westside, I didn’t recognize the sloppy illustration of Chicago Lee had so haphazardly drawn. Even more offensive was the bombastic 127 minute lecture aimed at the listless, lazy and inherently violent people of Chicago, a lecture he now reiterated with images from his shipwreck of a film. He’d even brought along 3 ex-cons, clad in matching Chi-Raq t-shirts, singing his praises as if they were some sort of gangster chorus.
By this time I had suffered through Chi-Raq three times. I wanted a $3.99 reimbursement for the first exclusive viewing via Amazon Prime. I wanted the 127 minutes I’d spent watching Chi-Raq at a free screening on campus returned. But only that 127 minutes—the subsequent discussion had been deliciously tense and repressed, the way race conversations always are in white spaces. More than my $3.99, I wanted a hefty settlement for the emotional distress I’d suffered during the 1 minute and 55 second trailer for Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus we’d just finished watching, in which he parodies a horror classic in a desperate attempt to preserve his oeuvre from his recent duds. Also I wanted to be ideologically purged of the sexism and misogyny I’d internalized from watching Nola through the lens of a bunch of useless men unwilling to listen and understand her in She’s Gotta Have It.
But that night, in Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium, after he asked if I wanted my money back, I realized it was futile to expect anything else from Mr. Spike Lee when I could create an oeuvre of my own. Wasn’t that why I was suffering through peer essays on the agency of Woody Allen starlets and screenplay table readings riddled with more “niggers” than a Tarantino fantasy?
Spike Lee was and is still the only auteur for a black film student to study, according to my professors. Oscar Micheaux is a pioneer, but too far removed from the contemporary moment. Michael D. Lee churns out box office hits, nothing more. John Singleton films aren’t universal enough. Tyler Perry is—well Tyler Perry doesn’t exist. Still too soon to tell for Jordan Peele and Ava Duvernay. So I followed the narrowly constricted mold and gorged on Spike Lee’s “art.” The messianic promise of Do The Right Thing left me militant and fiending for more. She’s Gotta Have It was so incredibly wrong, but my thirst for flawed and sexual black women catalyzed an obsession with Nola and her antics. Malcolm X healed me after painful class discussions on police brutality when I was the only student in the room who’d had negative experiences with cops. Bamboozled, with its didactic message and the annoying accent of Damon Wayan’s Pierre, left an unsavory taste in my mouth, and the ending of Crookyln stung like a fresh bee sting. Despite Lee’s hiccups and misfires, I gave Chi-Raq a chance—many chances—because I had no choice.
We all make mistakes, right? I made one the moment I hit play on Chi Raq. The opening shot of the El feels displaced and remote, the generic city background robbing the film of the rich and complex personality of its city namesake. The downward pan transitions to a scene in the club which, despite the onstage performance of a native Chicago rapper, feels utterly foreign. The gang bangers wear vibrant orange and purple colors totally uncharacteristic of Chicago gangs and spew heavy New York slang. Adding insult to injury, John Cusack —who portrays Father Phleger, the only civilian working to end the endemic violence, and the only significant white character—delivers a monologue brimming with condescension and false statistics.
Lee’s misogyny and mistreatment of women characters are as iconic as his dolly shots. Yet I still found his audacity—resting the fate of an entire city on the strategy of women withholding sex from gang bangers, cops, government officials and uninvolved men alike— startling.The sex gladiator scene left me bewildered: Lysistrata robed in a shimmery, gold one piece and Chi-Raq in his hallmark wifebeater walking from opposite ends of the dark gymnasium to meet in the middle, where a large bed sits illuminated by the lights of surrounding military tanks. They climb on the bed and engage in a primitive, yet choreographed routine— crouching, contorting, wrestling, and trying to make each other orgasm first. They lock eyes devilishly, pucker their lips, place seductive kisses on each other’s bodies and rub together feverishly while simultaneously appearing unwilling. I may be making this sound hotter than it actually is. Not to mention that this sex match is being broadcast city-wide, as if it were the Bud Billiken parade. Spike’s voyeuristic gaze, disinformation and sloppy directorial choices left me seething. Yet I was transfixed once again by Lee’s unwavering commitment to misunderstanding women’s motives. I hate watched Chi-Raq three times— downright mesmerized by his newfound commitment to alienating Chicagoans.
In his baseball hat, trademark round spectacles and accompanying pompous demeanor Lee paced the stage. The timid student moderators stuttered through a litany of questions but Spike cut them off. He swayed to the front of the stage as if making his comedic debut. “A Chicago rapper made a song called ‘Fuck Spike Lee’, and two weeks later he was shot in the head”, chuckled Lee, the chortles of the audience egging him on. He had the smug confidence of a crooked, Chicago politician. I feared my head might shoot off of my neck releasing chlorine gas into the laughing faces around me. He called Chance The Rapper, who’d dare take him on, a fraud. He postulated that a women’s sex strike may be a feasible and bloodless option, despite the burning of women who denied men sex in Lysistrata. Holding forth, his mousy voice deepened and he seemed to grow physically taller. He sounded suspiciously like some super Black conservative— his propensity to chastise young Black men for purchasing luxury sneakers and not reading books propelling him into the ranks of Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson.
I stood up shaking with the furor of Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) staring at the wall of white heroes at Sal’s Pizza in Do The Right Thing. I told Spike Lee he wouldn’t have the gall to give such an asinine lecture in the city, more specifically in the neighborhoods he’d pillaged for material and locations while denying the inhabitants their humanity. He just shrugged, “C’mon” he said, and stood even taller, preparing to prevent his unfair prosecution. I told him he’d made a movie about violence in my city and cravenly left out systemic oppression. How could the government and racism itself not bear the brunt of the blame with astronomical rates of unemployment, redlining, and piss poor schools in the neighborhoods he filmed? He moved dangerously close to the edge of the stage, casting a dark shadow over the ex-con puppets he’d brought along to give him clout among Chicagoans. “Did you see the John Cusack monologue? Did you see it?”, he rebutted, showering the first row of the audience in spit. I told him I had, and it wasn’t enough. In Lee’s vision, all it takes to achieve citywide peace is black people dressed angelically in white and a soul train line of testimonies. All responsibility for a ceasefire falls ridiculously on the shoulders of one lone gang-banger, Chi-Raq. As if women withholding sex and gang-bangers admitting their trespasses is some sort of panacea. Condescendingly Lee asked if I wanted my money back. I shouted, “Yes”, my voice shaky with rage and disappointment and exited the auditorium after stumbling awkwardly over my obedient note-taking peers. I was still shaking when I finally made it out of the auditorium. I was simultaneously embarrassed about the scene I’d made, proud of myself for standing up to the incomparable Spike Lee, and terrified that my own films would soon fall short of the standards I was holding him to.
Looking back, I’m not sure if I wanted my money back or I wanted an apology for the inevitable betrayal you suffer when you’re forced to wrap all your aspirations in one man – because there’s only one black auteur to choose from.