Once again, I have live tweeted another film. Although this is a documentary by Spike Lee, I do believe it is good to jot down your thoughts while you watch a film.
From this experience of live tweeting, i hope that I have opportunities in the future to sit down in a private film screening to share my words with a larger space. I hope I learn to keep my twitter active to engage in thoughtful conversations with not only peers but the larger world.
Spike Lee’s Joints isn’t the only class I had the…ahem, pleasure, of watching Chi-Raq. I had to watch it again for Greek Drama after we had read Lysistrata by Aristophanes. As a friendly reminder, Lysistrata is what Chi-Raq is based on. Heck, it’s the play Lysistrata’s (our protagonist) namesake comes from. However, there are glaring differences between Aristophanes’ farce and Spike Lee’s satire.
The use of gender as a vehicle for comedy is the most glaring.
In the traditional Greek theater, all characters on stage were played by men. When men dress as women on the Greek stage, women are amounted to parodies. Lysistrata is a joke of the impossible. Women? Stopping wars? Now that’s a joke. And to be quite honest, the women of Lysistrata do not make a vow to abstain from sex to stop a war.
The women make the vow to have their husbands stop fighting so they can come back to them. The reasons of celibacy is still heavily dependent on the need for a man’s presence. Unlike Chi-Raq where Lysistrata’s anthem of “no peace no pussy” is for more valiant efforts such as protecting young children from the gunfire of gang violence, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata just wants her man back in the house.
How interesting it is, then, for Lee to make an attempt at making a comedy that within it’s very structure pokes fun at the ineptitude of women to create a piece (no pun intended) that has women as the seemingly most motivated characters of his film. Chi-Raq falls short, however, in making a definite line between making a joke of the bodies and minds of black women and crediting their success. It is clear in Lysistrata that women are the punchline (it would have been outrageous in Greek culture for women to have any agency), but in Chi-Raq? Still debatable.
I saw myself in, Troy. Crooklyn at times was hard to watch because she reminded me so much of myself when I was growing up with a rowdy brother and in a neighborhood full of rowdy boys. She was the outlier and she did a pretty good job of navigating that mostly male space, but still stood out. Growing up I used to wear my hair like hers, in tight braids (with no hair extensions), and this made me look a little more androgynous then I would have liked. It was hard being the small, not yet developed into a woman’s body, girl with short hair in braids. You do not exactly fit into societal standards of beauty– and you’re often told that by your peers (mostly the annoying boys you live with.) Troy compensated for this by being good at sports and quick to combat insults with even wittier comebacks. I know this act and it is a tiring one to perform sometimes.
Prior to this film I used to not like to think about my appearance during the ages of 9-12. It was a rough time for me, in my opinion. But actually watching Crooklyn changed that for me. Watching someone on screen that reminded me so much of myself, and seeing the beauty in a girl like Troy, made me see the beauty in my childhood self. I know this sounds incredibly cheesy and kind of annoying, but it is true. Crooklyn helped me actually become more accepting of my Blackness, and find beauty in myself. Growing up I always wished my hair wasn’t in tight, short braids, or that I had bigger breasts, or I wasn’t so dark. Watching Troy on screen, however, made me realize that there is beauty in being that little Black girl. The one that is pretty but does not fit into the mold of being “pretty” by American television standards (light skinned, long straight-ish hair, physically bigger.) I think it is awesome that Spike Lee chose an actress that is not your typical American TV star, because those girls exist too and they’re magical in their own way.
From a 2013 interview with Spike Lee:
THR: How did you come to decide it should be a documentary over a narrative film? Why did you make that change?
Lee: Because it was a dumb idea when I wrote that letter to do it as a fictional account. It had to be a documentary. I didn’t want actors recreating the stuff. I wanted the parents, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers. I wanted documents of them. I did not want this to be actors doing this. I wanted this to be a documentary.
THR: 4 Little Girls was your first documentary. It must have felt like a huge undertaking.
Lee: Documentary is storytelling. So I don’t really, to be honest, have a different mindset between my narrative and my documentary filmmaking. It’s about storytelling.
My 8th grade history teacher once said, upon teaching about an earthquake that occurred in the Philippines, that “when one person dies it is a tragedy, when 100 people die it is a statistic.” While this is a fairly dark statement for a middle school teacher to make, it has always stuck with me and unfortunately has proven to be true the more I come to understand the world. The death of a few people in a particular tragedy seems to always attract more grief and widespread condolences than an event were many people die. This might have to do with people being able to see themselves in one or two people but not in fifty or more*, so when a mass murder or deaths happen most people cannot even come to envision themselves or their loved ones in that tragic situation.
In the case of the movies we just watched, both 4 Little Girls and Chi-Raq are centered around tragic deaths; however, one movie is made clearly to evoke tears and the other is more nuanced in its approach because of the element of satire. It is not that I think Spike Lee does not want the audience to cry while watching 4 Little Girls and not during Chi-Raq, but one the strategy in presentation of the murders is different. In the beginning of Chi-Raq the viewer is shown statistics on the screen that compare the number of deaths in Chicago to those in the Middle East since 2002. There have been so many people murdered in Chicago that the viewer upon seeing those numbers does not even really get a chance to let them soak in. The number is almost too large to be comprehensible, and because of this the audience begins the film with a different mentality than 4 Little Girls. My theory for this is that four deaths is easier to swallow and immediately emphasize with than 7,000+. It was interesting to hear the class discussion after both films because while they both center around murder and the loss of Black life, one conversation was outwardly more grievous than the other. I wonder if Spike Lee had that in mind while making Chi-Raq after 4 Little Girls, or if even he himself could not swallow the amount of murders that happen in Chicago and turn the epidemic into something other than a satire, and also why he chose to focus the main plot of the movie on the murder of one little girl.
*That was an arbitrary number to prove a point. In no way am I trying to quantify the importance of life or what should be considered a “mass murder.” I just picked a number substantial higher than two to illustrate a difference in how people might respond in a given tragedy. All life is important.
What I enjoyed so much about this documentary was the effectiveness of it. It was simple, powerful, factual, and used a perfect combination of contrast, interviews of family and friends of the girls juxtaposed with archival footage and various interviews with people like George Wallace and Arthur Hanes Jr. Below are some examples or screenshots of moments that were very effective or people who provided personal anecdotes about their daughter (like the McNairs) that gave the audience a visceral reaction. There were many moments that I did not include but these are just a few that really stood out to me: Continue reading “4 Little Girls: Effective moments and contrast”