News broke on December 9, 2015 that the Wu Tang Clan had chosen to donate a good portion of the profits from the sale of their Once Upon A Time in Shaolin album to charity upon realizing the buyer of the one-copy-only record was Martin Shkreli, the vulture capitalist who recently bought the rights to the anti-parasitic Darapin, a medication used regularly by HIV/AIDS patients, and jacked the price up from $13.50 to $750 a pill. At a time when the HIV/AIDS population includes a sizable portion of straight women of color, one cannot blame the Clan for having a heart.
This has been a very bad year for women of color. Mothers have been forced to bury their sons due to the continued police murder of young men whose killers are allowed to go free. Donald Trump’s recent lunatic and racist remarks about Muslims came after the violence in California had direct implications for women of color and cast aspersions upon them, particularly when one recalls that a substantial demographic of American Muslims are either converts who came to the religion through the Nation of Islam or were born into the faith before migrating to these shores from Africa.
Meanwhile, in cinemas across America, we see the release of Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ. As a scholar of film, I have had a nuanced relationship with Lee’s work. If one looks at DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, or INSIDE MAN, we see a craftsman who will be remembered as one of the most successful African Americans of his generation. Yet in all three of these films, we also see a heterosexual male with a very problematic set of ideas about women, gender, and sexuality. The late, great Marlon Riggs, director of the classic documentary TONGUES UNTIED that sent Sen. Jesse Helms into paroxysms, early on was citing Lee for his homophobia. With CHI-RAQ, we see the culmination of these trends that have been plaguing him for the entirety of his career.
DO THE RIGHT THING, set in a Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the summer, is filled with one-dimensional women characters, epitomized by the love interest Tina (Rosie Perez) that comes off as a stereotypical Latina nag. MALCOLM X reduces the late Dr. Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) to a classical Hollywood cinema love interest who serves as a literal microphone of Malcolm’s ideas and little more. And INSIDE MAN is simply loaded with sexist language and women who either are totally unseen or come off as absolute monsters. It seems like Lee either cannot or will not engage with feminism in a meaningful fashion that would check the misogyny.
Now comes the tragicomic CHI-RAQ, wherein the women go on a sex strike to stop the violence in the streets of Chicago. Aja Monet wrote:
Chiraq offers a comparison to a Greek comedy by Aristophanes called, “Lysistrata.” The premise is women deny sex to stop male violence. It would be satire if it were not bowing to stereotypes. Black women’s bodies are not ransom for manhood or dignity. J. Marion Sims was a White American who committed acts of war on Black women’s bodies, they were tortured and mutilated. Why not a film about Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy? The three enslaved Black women whose names Sims recorded if only for the positive results observed in experimenting with them. The birth of the study of women’s bodies came at the price of Black Women’s physical bodies and caused their deaths. He believed Black women did not feel pain. Apparently, our men don’t either. Or so it would seem as if Black men haven’t the sense or heart to stop killing people who look like them. I don’t believe it is just for lack of knowledge that our children are dying, it is also a fight against the lack of imagination, resources, opportunities, and identity. It is a lack of political education. In the pursuit of profit, Black communities have become battlefields for experiments against the poor and defenseless. Women have been at the forefront.
In a country founded on the backs of enslaved single mothers of color, why is Spike Lee furthering the sexism, the bigotry, and the loathing of black female bodies? It’s not like he isn’t a professor at New York University, one of the most prestigious film schools on the Eastern seaboard, where he could take classes for free in Women’s Studies. It’s not like that school isn’t in one of the metro centers feminism. Bené Viera writes brilliantly :
One of my first concerns was the sheer number of white people in the theater who would undoubtedly take this film seriously. If I see one white writer waxing poetic about how Chi-Raq is a brilliant analysis of violence in Chicago I may shake the table… He has always had a problem creating female characters. Always. In Chi-Raq the women are nothing more than their vaginas. “No peace, no pussy!” they chant. The only power they have is between their thighs. Women only exist for the pleasure and control of men. Guess what, though? Women enjoy sex. We love it! Why should women have to deprive ourselves of sexual fulfillment to cajole grown ass men? Not to mention the idea of black women withholding sex completely ignores the real life violence black women face at the hands of black men. So while the women are withholding sex to end gang-related violence, who is fighting for violence and sexual assault against black women? Yeah. It’s quiet on that front.
This American republic and culture are based on the mutilation, exploitation, and degradation in the public square of African womanhood. From the slave auction block to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” to slurs about Obama’s daughters, the white power structure and poor whites hypnotized by its charms have created a society that thrives on this degradation. This hypnosis goes so deep that some will even be tricked into thinking of that degradation as virtuous.
And that is where the real issue lies. Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, a website founded by a film critic from Chicago who married an African American, gave the movie four stars! Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls it “necessary” and “overwhelming”! The film has an 80% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it is noticeable that almost all these critics are lily-white! And lest we forget, Armond White was expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle after publicly confronting director Steve McQueen over 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which he called “torture porn”, leaving only one other African critic in the group, as highlighted several years ago by Ishmael Reed.
In the aforementioned Aja Monet piece, one can listen to Chicago activists angrily confronting Spike Lee. Ijeoma Oluo at The Stranger goes all the way and headlined his review Fuck You, Spike Lee. It is abundantly clear what is going on here. This is the film white film critics love because it shames and belittles Africans. It demeans them and makes them look like sex-crazed maniacs rather than victims of capitalism. Lee, intentionally or not, has given white America a free “blame the victims” card.
On December 10, news broke that the Wu-Tang Clan had (allegedly) included their record sale contract a clause of epic proportions:
The buying party also agrees that at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.
Good lord! Why can’t Spike Lee make THAT comedy film? Not only would HIV-positive women of color be avenged, we would have the ability to see it done by the type of multi-ethnic collaborative effort that needs to be encouraged in our society. What a shame we must get CHI-RAQ instead.