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chi-raq

Chiraq.
n.
1. This is a fatalistic name given to Chicago by mostly black people who experience that city more as a warzone than as anything else.
2. A 2015 movie by Spike Lee focused on the tragedy that for a long time has enveloped the city of Chicago and other black projects in the United States.

The drawing of parallels between the deaths of Americans in Iraq and the deaths of Americans in Chicago isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 2011 song Murder to Excellence Kanye West raps:
I’m from the murder capital
where we murder for capital….
Time for us to redefine black power
41 souls murdered in 50 hours…
Is it genocide?
Cos I can still hear his mother cry…
314 soldiers died in 1raq
509 died in Chicago…

Last year was a year when the world heard a lot more about the deaths of young black men at the hands of the institutions that are supposed to protect them in America than ever. The names evoked a place where all you had to do in order to die was to be young and black. The script was always familiar. A black man shot, strangled, killed by the police. A grand jury convened. No wrongdoing on the part of the police. Last year I empathised with black people in America more than I ever have before. All that killing got to me. They are after all my brothers and sisters. We share a heritage that goes further than mere skin colour. Our ancestors have all suffered and been subjected to violence, theft, conditions of enslavement and actual enslavement by people who felt that their technological advances in the art of warfare gave them dominion over their fellow man. Our cultures have both been decimated by these very people. A forcible process of substitution , dilution and dissolution has taken place in all cultures of all black people all over the world in the centuries preceding this. Our religion, our way of life, our mode of dressing, our way of relating to each other has been forcibly changed beyond all recognition. Add to all this they are human like I am. They are my brother and sister as all humans are. It is thus only human to feel their pain. To mourn with them. To rage with them. To hope for change with them. To do my best to understand what they are going through so that I may not pass judgement on that which I do not know.

This is why I watched Chiraq. Also because I read that it’s a damn good movie. And it is. The movie opens with a raging and angry song. A song about a dying city. The lyrics are splashed on the screen in red. They are the words of a man losing his religion. Trying to keep his head up as he is surrounded by nothing but death and disaster. The refrain asks “please pray for my city.”

It cuts to a concert. One of those concerts that my heart prays are not an invention of the screen but an authentic slice of black culture in some places in America. A young rapper holds forth to an audience in a small space that holds maybe 100 people but everyone there really feels the music. They shout back the lyrics; they sway to the beat and, at least in this movie, do it in synchrony. Creating a wave that is as hypnotic as my mind tells me it is impossible. Then the action pauses and an old man walks on the stage.

He speaks directly to the audience about Aristophanes a playwright in ancient Greece who wrote his plays in rhyme and informs us that this movie too will be in rhyme.

The plot of the movie comes both from reality and art. The fictional world inspiring it being one thought up by Aristophanes who wrote a play called Lysistrata in which the title character (who shares a name with the main character of Chiraq) convinces the women of Greece to go on a sex strike to bring an end to the Peloponnesian war. The real world event that it resembles took place during the Second Liberian Civil War. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led by Crystal Roh Gawding and organised by Leymah Gbowee and Comfort Freeman explored non-violent means of fostering a peace in Liberia. They threatened curses, held sit-ins, organised a sex-strike. Through their actions they forced a meeting with Charles Taylor ( you know this is a serious guy because his name sends shivers down my spine and I come from a country who elected as President and Deputy President two people who were at the time being tried for war crimes at the Hague.) they kick-started peace talks and were instrumental in bringing about the end of the war and ushering in the country’s first female head of state. Who went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee.

Back to the movie itself. As promised the script rhymes all the way through. The application of the rhyme didn’t seem contrived though. It sounded as if the people spoke like that and that things just happened to rhyme as they sometimes do. The first conjugal scene is cut short when the house Lys and her boyfriend (a gang leader also called Chiraq) are in is set on fire. He rushes out with an AK-47 and fires bullets at the retreating car. Lys meets his neighbour, an older woman with whom she seeks refuge after visiting the murder scene of a young girl. It is this woman who schools her on Liberian history and plants the idea for the strike in her mind. Convincing her that only they can do something about it by speaking three lines that hold in them the sad truth about America’s policy as regards guns

Ask the parents at Sandy Hook ,
when they murder white babies and things don’t change
Saving black lives is way out of range

Something sparks in her and she goes out to mobilise her fellow black women. Appealing to their shared grief, the fact that all of them had lost somebody important just now and stood to lose somebody important in the next moments
It’s how we die,
You wanna lose your man in a drive by,
In a pine box fore he twenty-five

And the strike is set. There were two scenes in the movie that stayed with me. The mother of the black girl who was killed takes out a pail of water in order to scrub out the blood that was left on the pavement of the crime scene. She scrubs it and wrings out the water and scrubs it again. It hit me that this must happen. That this kind of thing must happen. When a person is killed on the street the cops will take their evidence and leave. They will leave the stain on the road without cleaning it. If you leave it long enough it will begin to disappear, washed away by rain or faded by dirt. Something will happen to take away the sore on the road. But, if this is your child or parent, if this is a spouse or a sibling, if this is a friend or a lover and this road lies near where you live you will not want to see it. It’s a reminder. A reminder of the spot where they died as if you could forget it. It’s a symbol of the institutional and cultural rot that enables this kind of thing to happen. It’s something anyone would spend hours and hours scrubbing away. Turning it red, orange, faded, streaked, spotted and almost vanished.

The other scene involved an insurance salesman who drops by a house because he has heard that there is a young black boy there. He wants to offer an insurance policy because we all know their life expectancy is extremely low. Can’t you just see something like that happening in real life? Somebody suggesting that they sell this policy because this is an at-risk constituency, a people who walk with the spectre of death hovering above them at all times. The thing is I don’t see it being approved by any insurance company because there would be too many claimants. It would make no financial sense because as it is put in yet another of Kanye’s songs

We weren’t supposed to make it past twenty five

the joke’s on you we still alive

Despite the bleak nature of the movie it still manages to be extremely humorous. There is a moment in there that is like a swallow of spring-water for any fan of the Wire. There are all the reactions to no peace no pussy movement. Men frustrated and counter-protesting. The governmental efforts to turn the women on and make them give in. Men going half-crazy from the lack of release is always a subject ripe for humour.

The movie ends with an emotional moment that gives a nod to history repeating itself as tragedy and it is as sad a closing scene as I have watched in a long time.

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300, a review

The best way to watch 300: Rise of an Empire, well the way i watched it at least is simple. Get a job that requires you to work on Saturdays. Go home after work on that day and quickly realise that you would rather be anywhere in the world than indoors. Get up and leave the house with no earthly idea where to go or who you will meet when you get there. Don’t forget to grab some red wine from that bottle that was opened last week and pour it into a coke bottle. Do this because red wine looks a lot like Coca-Cola and drinking in public is illegal. Walk until you feel like getting into a matatu and then just go town. You must have faith that something will come of this. The faith of a mustard seed can move mountains said one guy who had less than 13 at his side and yet changed the world forever(take that Leonidas). Walk randomly and aimlessly into the cinema hall. Look around at the posters and think about how this is a movie you do want to watch but you need to be prepared, armed at least with a student id card and ideally with a mind altering drug coursing through your system. At this point meet an old friend from school who offers you a free ticket. Accept, walk across to the bar, get some beers and then sit down and begin watching.

First I should say this was a beautiful movie. Because of the 3 d effect they found ways to incorporate every single thing they could into it. There were flecks of dust that looked like gold floating and flowing through the movie. Dust everywhere. Everyone was photoshopped to a high sheen. So much Vaseline used on the bodies here I thin global masturbation levels may have dropped by necessity. There were some scenes that showed this version of ancient Greece in all its glory. Backdrops of such beauty and detail, a canvas in front of which the actors are working and every once in a while I’d get distracted by the mountains rising out of the mist and wondering where those roads lead and all the beautiful golden suns that were used to represent dust.

 

there follow spoilers but all these things happened thousands of years ago

I always laugh at people who rush to get to a football game on time. I always say, “hey if you miss the first five minutes then nothing else will make sense so don’t be late.” I missed the first five minutes of the movie. I spent the time looking for my seat before it hit me that I didn’t have to, I could just sit anywhere and hope that no one came to ask me to move. The first five minutes talks about the ascension of the god-king Xerxes to the throne of Persia.

After this the movie proper begins. The question going in is what the movie could possibly be about when the brave 300 are already dead well; it could be about nothing at all to do with the number or the people. The surviving Spartans are seen more in the trailer than they are in the movie. And that rousing speech from the one who survived talking about bringing the Spartans to war against the Persians? He seems to forget on the road back from Thermopylae. I wanted to see Spartans immediately. This is what I had comeback for the glory of Sparta and instead I got treated to a conference between the other Greek city states as they discussed what to do about the war. Soon it becomes clear that the two movies share the same timeline. In fact our hero visits Sparta soon after the 300 have gone to war. When Leonidas has already breached the rules of diplomacy so badly nothing could save him but an op-ed by Vladimir Putin in the New York Times. He then utters what is perhaps the best line in eh movie. “The Persians promised the Spartans something they couldn’t refuse…a beautiful death.”

Then the movie becomes what it actually was, a naval war movie. The Greek and Persian navies meet again and again and in an incredible turn of events our hero is a great naval genius. Commanding the Persian fleet is a Greek woman who turns against her nation due to act of brutality so sustained that I completely forgot who the bad guys were supposed to be. The Greeks, like America fought for freedom except for those who they had taken it away from and being both disgusted and deformed by the brutality she experienced as a sex slave the real hero of the movie moved to the Persian side. And all she wants is a man who is man enough to stand by her side and make her feel whole. None of the Persians are man enough and this leads predictably to a sex scene between her and our other hero. It’s a strange scene. They fight out their naval battle in bed. There isn’t a lot of sensuality in it. Anyone expecting the play that happened last time with lights flashing off and on will be sorely disappointed. They have sex so loudly and so violently that her guards turn and look to each other wondering about the sounds that were coming from inside. Everyone in the cinema laughed and then I thought about how strange it was. There we all were in a darkened theatre watching these two people have sex. There must have been a couple of boners in the audience, men being as visually slutty as we are. Group voyeurism at its very best was on display as we all sat and watched not just the people have sex but the people embarrassed to be hearing them and all we could do was laugh at the second level.

The fight scenes were what you would expect from a movie like 300. Lots of blood and slow motion cuts and parries and thrusts. This was mind-bending in 2007 when I had seen nothing like it before. But after Spartacus the TV show so shamelessly ripped off 300 and then pushed boundaries that movie hadn’t arrived at yet it was just a long episode of Spartacus. Beautiful though I kept being distracted by the scenery at the back and forgetting to watch what was going on screen. 3-d makes going to the cinema worth it. I love falling into those other worlds. Seeing sculptures instead of looking at paintings is a great experience.

This being a naval movie there was a chance for some difference to Spartacus and the first movie. And I remember this particular scene where our male hero is on his ship and decided to join the battle for real. He jumps in the air (these Greeks can fly if they put their minds to It.) out of nowhere a horse shows up on the rocking, rollicking, practically capsizing ship and he gets on it. He rides and cuts down Persians beautifully with curving slashes and downward strikes. He rides the horse into the ocean because he needs to get to another ship and the horse swims through the sea and the Greek Fire that burns on the ocean and in a paradox that even Greek fire would be shamed by is wielded by Persians. It gets to the other side and deposits him as he lands and takes out Persians right, left, and centre before going into the pen-ultimate boss fight with our female hero.

I’ll say the first one was much better. And I believe the third one will be too. There’s just really no reason to call that one 300 either. They are all dead at this point. Nothing wrong with watching it though, in fact highly entertaining especially if you are prepared.

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