Tag Archives: Iraq

#Chiraq

Guest Post from Herbert Agyemang in St Albans

dear reader,

 Every Christmas, I often relieve the ennui of HOME ALONE, and the other wholesale lassitude that stifles, by  and re-watching  old stacks of DVD’S and even streaming and reviewing new movies online.Bar humbugged, and flu-bug notwithstanding and cocooned from prying eyes, my lounge, my personal Library : my four walled and floor to ceiling high book-shelves;  have seen me assiduously  watch at least 10m times or more { 10  times, just in case I missed a skit or something } the latest Spike Lee joint. CHIRAQ. On the each of those 10 or more occasions times, I have come away with this:  I am not a professional film critic by any stretch,  but I don’t think I am wrong to suggest here that  we have  in his tragicomic turn,  CHIRAQ, Lee brilliantly invoke Greek playwright Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’

CHIRAQ

Let me preamble: for the uninitiated the clue is in the title. If still unsure, CHIRAQ is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq. Ifl none the wiser still, read on.

It may not take much to make film maker Spike Lee angry, but there’s no denying he gives us his reasons and then some in “Chi-Raq,” a sprawling, blistering state-of-the-union address that presents Chicago’s South Side as a cesspool of black-on-black violence, gang warfare, gun worship and macho misogyny, ruled by unbreakable cycles of poverty and oppression.

All that social outrage clearly demanded similarly outsized treatment, and Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (“CSA: The Confederate States of America”) have found a remarkably accommodating vessel in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” whose tale of an ancient Greek heroine leading an anti-war sex strike has been updated here as an alternately bluesy and scalding, yet soulful and playful and deadly serious 21st-century oratorio.

Blunt, didactic and stronger on conceptual audacity than dramatic coherence, this is still the most vital, lived-in work in some time from this maverick filmmaker who has never shied away from speaking his mind or irritating his ideological foes, as he seems destined to do again with this attention-grabbing first feature just released by Amazon Studios (co-distributed with Roadside Attractions).

While the director’s overtly political satires have never fared especially well at the box office, the combination of ripped-from-the-headlines urgency and slick, provocative packaging should draw more than a handful of Lee fans and curious moviegoers — led by but not limited to black audiences — as “Chi-Raq” makes its way from theaters to Amazon’s streaming service. Rattling off enough social-justice talking points to irritate conservative commentators at least through the holidays, Lee’s movie has already drawn the ire of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel with its title, whose juxtaposition of “Chicago” and “Iraq” is defended in a powerful musical overture, “Pray 4 My City” (performed by top-billed star Nick Cannon). Introduced with the flashing on-screen words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” the song is a grim ode to a major metropolis that has seen more Americans killed in the past 15 years than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.

Chi-Raq is also the rap alias of Demetrius Dupree (Cannon), who is the lover of the beautiful Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and also the leader of a purple-clad gang known as the Spartans; their sworn enemies are the orange-wearing Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch, natch). The names may come straight from the Peloponnesian War, but the setting is present-day Englewood, Chicago, where tensions erupt in a shootout one night at a packed concert venue (a scene that can’t help but provoke a queasy reminder of the Nov. 13 2015 Paris attacks).

But it’s not until an 11-year-old girl, Patti, is felled by a stray bullet, to the devastation of her mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), that someone decides enough is enough.

Enter Lysistrata. {Actually, don’t enter my pussy} Lysistrata, who decides the only way these men will lay down their firearms is if they stop getting laid. Backed by a wise peace-activist neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata and her Spartan sisters reach across the gangland divide, persuading the women of Troy to join them in a campaign of abstinence until their men agree to talk peace. Before long, they’ve stormed a U.S. armory — after a nose-thumbing, not-very-funny scene involving the humiliation of a Confederate-flag-bearing crazy (David Patrick Kelly) — where they stage a peaceful but long-term protest, swearing a solemn oath of celibacy: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction / in erection.” That bawdy, rhyming style of dialogue pulses through much of Lee and Willmott’s script, whose characters blend rap idiom and rhythmic cadences into a stylized, vulgarized poetry that gives the picture an infectious pulse even when the narrative machinery occasionally stalls.

The focus on words rather than weapons (almost all the bloodshed takes place early and off screen) isn’t the only way the filmmakers honor and update their source’s ancient theatrical origins. The action periodically halts for the running commentary of Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus played, as he must be, by Samuel L. Jackson, his lip-smacking wordplay as colorfully varied as his sherbet-hued three-piece suits. The other key orator here is Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, hoarse with conviction), a figure inspired by the real-life priest and social activist Michael Pfleger.

During Patti’s funeral mass, which serves as the film’s emotional and musical centerpiece, Father Corridan invokes the spirit of the martyred Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., unleashing a fiery harangue against the tyranny of the NRA, the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lack of government investment in impoverished neighborhoods, and an overriding culture of fear and apathy that stands in the way of meaningful change.

The man behind this macabre sermon, of course, is really the enchanting Lee, whose preferred dramatic method here is to cobble together a grab-bag of grievances and hurl them at the screen with sometimes witty, sometimes clumsy abandon. To watch “Chi-Raq” is to feel as if you’ve stumbled into Gil Scott-Heron spoken-word recital, a hip-hop concert, and a gospel-choir performance rolled into one — held together by none other than a  a Terence Blanchard Jazz score, and peppered with up-to-the-minute references to Americas never-ending national nightmare: not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings (“Dylann Storm Roof / he’s the proof / post-racial … poof!”).

But for all its relevance to the very liberal and left-leaning Black Lives Matter movement, the movie focuses less on boiler-plate issues of white privilege and police brutality  than on the dispiriting everyday reality of blacks killing blacks, a system of “self-inflicted genocide” that is the target of Lysistrata’s blue-balls diplomacy. Ironically all these are hot-potato political topics right-wing conservatives would side with. I don’t know if  the self-identified liberal Lee is aware.

but I digress.

Before long, women all over the globe are joining the protest, waving signs with their own versions of the movement’s “No peace, no pussy” rallying cry. (Somehow, it’s sloppily explained, Lysistrata even manages to get strippers and prostitutes in on the ban, while also shutting down porn sites and phone-sex lines.)

While it cites the example of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, a modern-day Lysistrata who helped improve tribal relations in war-torn Liberia, West Africa, “Chi-Raq” isn’t seriously proposing mass celibacy as a feasible solution to the problems of contemporary American society. But there are still potent, if obvious, insights here into how bloodlust relates to carnal lust, how guns function as phallic symbols, and how a culture of violent machismo engenders an exploitative attitude toward women — an attitude that Lysistrata and her sisters attempt to reclaim by strutting about in form-fitting military fatigues and chastity belts. These and other costumes designed by Ruth E. Carter dovetail splendidly with Alex DiGerlando’s detailed, color-coordinated production design; despite its gritty environs, the production has a bright, theatrical sheen, amplified by the expansive widescreen compositions of d.p. Matthew Libatique (in his fifth collaboration with Lee).

Uneven as storytelling, scattershot as satire, and capped by an emotional climax that feels too rigged to resonate, Lee’s latest joint is best appreciated as a vigorous and uninhibited work of social criticism, executed with the madly riffing instincts of a pop-cultural magpie. It’s a rare movie that can tap into ancient Greek literature and a century’s worth of African-American performance traditions, and still find time to sample freely from “West Side Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove.” There are also clear echoes of Lee’s own filmography, and if “Chi-Raq” never summons the tension and immediacy of his earlier work“Do the Right Thing,” it can’t help but recall his “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” in the way it pivots, morally and dramatically, on the story of a woman’s sexual independence.

The artist Parris first caught Lee’s eye with her memorable turn in “Dear White People,” and here, whether she’s rocking an afro or a slinky gold Cleopatra number, she projects intelligence and charisma as the film’s inspired voice of reason, even if there’s a certain flatness to her moral determination. In the more ambiguous role of Lysistrata’s lover-turned-adversary, Cannon has rarely been more commanding on screen, a brooding alpha figure who provides, in one of the film’s better scenes, a fleeting glimpse of the terrified, fatherless little boy within. Cusack and Jackson both have moments to savor, and Steve Harris (“The Practice”) is fittingly bellicose as Lysistrata’s most openly chauvinistic opponent. Harris is one of several Chicago natives in the ensemble — including Hudson, who gives the film a raw, uncomfortable jolt by enacting a fictionalized version of her own family’s violent tragedy. 

That sort of bold stroke is all too emblematic of “Chi-Raq”: Even when the movie’s choices veer on misguided, its confrontational attitude strikes a nerve.And that willingness to charge on through, risking scorn and ridicule, is perhaps the clearest sign that this quintessentially Brooklyn filmmaker has given Chicago the raucous, despairing yet faintly hopeful tribute it deserves. Lee’s vision of a scarred, gutted city may not please the tourism board, but his movie is better for it: Its seething dramatic texture captures a deeper, more elusive beauty that — like reconciliation, reform or any other human ideal — can only be achieved when the illusion of safety is left behind.

HERBERT AGYEMANG

FREE-LANCE WRITER/ LITERARY CRITIC.

#Pilgrimage in Terror: Day 1

September 2002. Disillusioned with protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie went on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain.

Day 1: Invasion

File:From Citadelle, Saint-Jean-pied-de-port 01 HDR (1873202026).jpgOn the railway platform at Bayonne we were all waiting in our different ways for the train that would take us to St. Jean Pied de Port (‘St John at the foot of the pass’) and the start of the pilgrimage route. One man was smoking a pipe and his wife, a cigarette. They wore chic red rain gear. I wondered how they would make it, with smokers’ lungs, over the Port de Cize, the mountain pass that had brought the Romans and Napoleon into Spain, and now pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

We strung ourselves out along the platform. We were all clearly walkers, with our backpacks and boots. We couldn’t hide from each other that we were all starting off on the same rather zany commitment of time and energy: a pilgrimage. Even today, even when lots of the walkers on the route are atheists or agnostics, it isn’t quite like just setting off on a hike. The modern tradition of the route says it will change you, it will give you some kind of experience of truth or happiness or peace. Paolo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine are but two of the more famous writers who have talked of mystic experiences on the way to Compostela. And that made us all a little sheepish standing there, made it difficult to strike up a conversation, as if we were all sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.

Our train crawled into the station. It hadn’t been painted for years. It made me think of the Harry Potter train, taking us into the time-warp of walking, into a world where the rules are different. Very soon the land began to rise around us as the train rattled on, winding tighter and tighter into the Pyrenees. Grassy banks sloped up at forty-five degree angles from our window, waving bunches of trees at the top. A light misty rain blurred the distances.

Opposite me in my compartment sat a young Englishman, just out of his teens. He was well built, with close-cropped hair. I could tell he was English because, apart from pale skin and shyness, he was studying a copy of the bright green laminated guidebook produced by The Confraternity of Saint James, a British outfit headquartered in Lambeth.

Chugging round tight valleys in the Pyrenees, I wondered if the young man opposite me had met the same lady in mauve that I had met in the Confraternity’s Lambeth office. He certainly had great respect for the guide, which he was poring over. Would he like a conversation or would he think talking to fellow English spoilt the atmosphere?

The ticket inspector entered our compartment. This created more awkwardness: the embarrassment of making those strange French sounds in front of a fellow Englishman. So we both of us confined ourselves to the relatively uncontroversial ‘Merci’, with just a glimmer of the vomit sound of the French ‘r’. The inspector didn’t bother looking us in the face, but examined our tickets disapprovingly from above a bulbous nose.

Having survived that incident together, we started to exchange bits of our lives. Alec was at ‘uni’ and seemed anxious. He only had enough money for two weeks’ walking and he wanted to get as far as Burgos, 257km according to the guidebook. I would never be able to walk that fast. Ah youth and maleness!

‘And what made you decide to do it?’ I asked.

‘Character building. That sort of thing.’ He was looking down. ‘I want to test myself. My Dad was in the army.’ So that explained the haircut. ‘He’s always told us that it’s important to have challenges in your life.’ Pause. ‘How about you?’

There I was, a recent peace demonstrator, walking against war, and in the very first moments of my pilgrimage I’m alone in a compartment with a soldier’s son. What magnetic material had they planted in those laminated bright green booklets to bring unlikely people together?

Faced with the politeness and forthright decency of this young man, my anti war arguments dissolved on my tongue. ‘I just wanted some time to reflect,’ I said, ‘Deserter!’ ringing in my ears.

I moved the conversation on to discussing the two routes over the Pyrennees into Spain: Napoleon’s conquering one over the mountain and Charlemagne’s path of retreat down in the valley. To my surprise, Alec agreed with me that the lower route would be enough of a personal challenge for the first day. Neither of us had done any training before we left, he because he was working day and night and I because I hadn’t managed to get organised.

But when we reached the tourist office in St. Jean, which was flooded out with pilgrims of all nationalities, their pilgrim staffs rolling over the floor and the shiny new rucksacks obstructing all passage, we were commanded to take the upper path, the ‘Route Napoleon’. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow and completely failed to comprehend when we suggested we might follow the modern lorry driver’s route. Brushing aside our qualms she told us to stay the first night at a hamlet called Huntto and attack the pass tomorrow. She pointed out the way on her map and showed us where, tomorrow, halfway along, there was a water fountain and shops. This I translated for my friend.

Alec was keen to get to a supermarket and stock up on provisions. I on the other hand was dreaming of a sit-down lunch with meat and potatoes. He was a little hesitant to abandon me in Saint Jean but I reassured him, so he shook hands with me and strode off. Over the next days of the walk I soon lost touch with him, polite and upright as he was. He rose each day with the earliest and launched off into the pre-dawn, swinging a plain baguette. I’m sure he reached Burgos and will do well.

In contrasting style I lingered in the mediaeval fortified town of St. Jean, eating a pricey meal of a whole duck with chips. It was late and I was the last person lunching, upstairs over a bar, with red and white checked paper tablecloths for company.

The town’s chief business seemed to be starting pilgrims on their journey. There was an entire market for pilgrims’ staffs. I wanted one of these, as I had read that they were a deterrent to dogs. I chose one with a spike. This was a bad mistake. The shock and ring of that spike on dry roads was to persecute me up and down dale for two weeks. But I clung to the thing in the hope that it would scare off territorial beasts who might waylay me at the gates of far-flung farms.

Before leaving St Jean, I climbed one of the stone staircases up onto the massive walls. Hills stretched away in all directions, blue and mushy with mist.

I had decided to dedicate each day of my walk to an aspect of the ‘war on terror’. I was hoping to find insights as I walked.

The theme I had picked for today, September 5th, was the plight of the Iraqis. Troops were already massing in the Gulf before I set off.

From my position on the fortifications, I gazed down on terracotta roofs, which the rain had stained dark red. Each had its own sliver of garden running towards the wall, dripping and shiny with the recent showers. Some were striped with different shades of green, the foliage of tomatoes, marrows, beans. Others had grown wild, but even those showed some sign of human providence – a walnut tree or an apple tree, a little easy nourishment in these pockets of land.

I could not think about a dry place. I could not think about suffering and fear. I could not think about hunger and the worry of parents. I could not both be here and somewhere else. How strange it was to be attacking a country so far away, none of whose people I had ever met, let alone hated. Here was full of enjoyment and there not. I chose here. I chose with an uneasy feeling of guilt.

So it was with a heavy heart and confusion, together with my usual expectant fear of dogs, that I crossed the river over the mediaeval bridge and followed signs for Huntto….

#Labour Myth 1: Ends Justify Means

Just now in St Albans, mild-mannered and likable Labour activists are distributing a glossy tabloid with a big lie on the front. Many of these activists are church-goers.

They must believe that the end justifies the means.

I wonder if this is the dividing line between Labour and the Lib Dems. Labour fight the class war to win. Lib Dems fight it but only up to a point. Labour see that as weak, or a betrayal.

Meanwhile Lib Dems worry about truth, and an individual’s human rights. If you abide by those things, can you ever win a war?

But are wars ever won? Is there ever an End? Is today’s China a communist state? Is Iraq a liberal democracy? Is Afghanistan ‘terrorist’-free?

If there is no end to things, no end in sight, maybe the means are all?

Tory Myth 2: There just isn’t the money

dome

#tax breaks, #royal family, #millennium dome, #war on terror – lovely ideas, Tories, but “there just isn’t the money.”

If you look at actions, rather than words, the Conservative Party has little problem with public spending – just so long as it doesn’t lead to redistribution. Militarism, or floating the Queen down the Thames on a barge, is OK, because the poor won’t get richer. Even spending on the NHS is fairly OK. The real threats to social order are welfare, social services, education, prison reform – things that might just empower people. Keeping a gap between the rich and poor is the underlying agenda of the Conservative Party.

According to the UK National Audit Office, the total cost of The Dome (a John Major commission) at the liquidation of the New Millennium Experience Company in 2002 was £789 million, of which £628 million came from National Lottery grants. That’s about 1% of today’s total #budget. See http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/breakdown

@guardian – UK military operations since cold war have cost £34bn, says study: http://gu.com/p/3zjqa/stw

@JohnPilger – We have created a hotbed of extremism in Iraq, inspiring ongoing expenses in a continued ‘war on terror’ which can’t be won until we stop being terrified.

For a lighter account of Tory madness, buy Adventures in Tory Land: Democracy in Middle England. Go to: http://amzn.to/1N1doeS