“Chi-Raq” and Spike Lee’s Bad Feminism

Some critics say Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s latest feature film, which will be streamable on Amazon Prime next month, is his best in years. For me, the film’s sexual empowerment slant presents an opportunity to revisit the director’s bad “feminism,” his almost uncanny ability to fail at representations of powerful women.

And yet, his failures don’t necessarily belie his attempts. Take his 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It. In an interview that year with Marlaine Glicksman, Lee refuses the label of a “feminist film” but admits to flipping the sexual double standard on its head by “mak[ing] a film about a woman who is actually living her life as a man.” However, inverting sexual double standards so that women perform freedoms typically afforded men is not inherently liberating. Plus, the film’s promise of a black, sex-positive heroine, in Nola Darling, is betrayed when her voice is drowned out by her suitors’ insecurities and her sexual audacity is punished with sexual assault (a decision the director later regretted). Her lover and assailant shores up his “masculinity” when he demands, “Whose pussy is this?” and Nola responds, “Yours.”

Something of an antidote to She’s Gotta Have It, 1996’s Girl 6, whose screenplay was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, explores the plight of a struggling actor and phone-sex operator, played by the inimitable Theresa Randle. While she searches for roles in the film industry that won’t degrade her and/or call for nudity, she becomes Girl 6 (whose name we learn near the end of film is Judy) at a “friendly phone line.” There, she becomes incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality and gets consumed by the increasingly sadomasochistic desires of her “johns,”  and viewers realize how both industries—the sex trade and Hollywood—pimp out racialized and sexualized fantasies for the benefit of a male gaze. bell hooks points out in her critique of Girl 6 in Reel to Real, “The film acts as a critical intervention, opening up a cinematic space where women can disinvest from and disengage with old representations.” Unfortunately, the end of the film suggests Judy’s escape from New York to Hollywood will not result in the freedom of self-invention that she seeks. Asked to disrobe at her first audition, she seems to have traded one casting couch for another.

Focused on a male protagonist but teeming with a kickass female cast, including pre-Scandal Kerry Washington, Dania Ramirez and Sarita Choudhury, She Hate Me (2004) is also a wink to She’s Gotta Have It, only the “it” is a baby and the women who want it are lesbians. John Henry “Jack” Armstrong (played by Anthony Mackie) is a whistleblower turned stud who impregnates his ex-girlfriend, her lover, and several other lesbians by having sex with them. Yep. Straight man has lots of sex with lots of lesbians. And they enjoy it. And he gets paid heftily ($10,000 a pop). Sure, Lee might just be bamboozling us by coupling the most insane masculinist fantasy of lesbianism with the racist stereotype of black male virility (as the John Henry allusion makes clear). And yet, the disjointed film and its tangled plotlines of corporate greed, unconventional families and the AIDS crisis stops just shy of a ménage a trois climax (thanks to “lesbian advisor” Tristan Taormino) but still manages to offend queer sensibilities with its polyamorous and male-centered vision of family.

Spike Lee might be uniquely good at bad “feminism.” In Fight the Power: The Spike Lee Reader, Heather Harris and Kimberly Moffitt touch on the enigma of the “Spiked lens,” which they describe as Lee’s special ability to create films that center black life and confront “Blaxploitation-era images,” but do so through a masculinist lens, an uncritically male-centered perspective. In his latest film, Lee aims his Spiked lens at gun violence in Chicago’s black neighborhoods but adds a twist that further illustrates why he’s so bad at feminism.

Chi-Raq recoups images reminiscent of Blaxploitation heroines like Foxy Brown and Coffy for a modern-day urban Lysistrata. Originally staged in Greece in 411 B.C., Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ satirical account of a woman-led sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Lee isn’t the first to outfit Aristophanes’ play with a black cast or to adapt it for contemporary issues. Emily Klein’s book, Sex and War on the American Stage: Lysistrata in Performance 1930-2012, details the play’s enduring appeal for artists who want to use comedy to address gender and war. Lee draws inspiration from the original play as well as the real-life sex strike in Liberia organized by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Leymah Gbowee to weave his own tale of the refusal of tail.

After Amazon released the first trailer for the film, I thought, “A sex strike? Spike Lee? How many ways can this go wrong?” Surprisingly, the sex strike plot wasn’t terribly orchestrated. When Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) leads a group of women in a pledge to “deny all rights of access or entrance” to men headed in their “direction, in erection,” it’s pretty funny. Some of the ways the film fails have less to do with Lee’s bad feminism than with his bad timing. As Salamishah Tillet points out in her review of the film for The New York Times, “in this era of Black Lives Matter, the paramount racial justice movement of our time, one that was founded by the black female activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, the idea that sexuality remains black women’s primary political weapon is, in and of itself, a bit of a joke.”

Even if we did concede that black women could use sex to stop the violence and “save the children,” this flawed logic rests on the assumption that it’s black women’s job as “nurturers” to curb men’s destructive tendencies and protect black communities. It further underestimates the extent to which sexual and physical violence against black women is also an emergency that warrants collective action. It’s commendable that the film’s plot incorporates community action against gun violence in response to the murder of Patti, a little black girl. Both in cases of state violence and internal violence in black communities, the lost lives of black girls tend to generate less collective outrage, as the movement #SayHerName makes clear. Perhaps a different lens would’ve illuminated these disparities. But, much akin to Lee’s other films, Chi-Raq seems to be a lost opportunity to engage race and feminism.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user jurek d. licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Jennifer D. Williams is an assistant professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her research and teaching interests include 20th and 21st century African American literature and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, particularly in relation to space, race and class.