This past weekend, I saw two films: Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, which came out in 2015, and the newly released Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins. It occurred to me, watching Lee's film through Amazon streaming on Saturday night and Jenkins' film in a theater Sunday afternoon, that I'd wound up doing a weekend program of two films that represent two diametrically opposed ways of presenting art.
With Lee's film - no surprise - you get the didactic approach. Chi-Raq is a musical drama about the horrifically high rate of violence, gang violence especially, on the south side of Chicago. The film is very funny and satirical, as befits a story based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Lee takes the playwright's conceit of women who are fed up with war (the Peloponnesian War in the play) and so refuse to give their husbands sex until the fighting stops, and transfers it to a group of Chicago women. Led by fiery Lysistrata, whose boyfriend Demetrius is the head of one gang, these women do not go to bed with their rival gang member men (or even the men not in gangs) until the gang members surrender their arms to put an end to the constant killing. The film is extremely stylized, with characters talking in a kind of street verse that approximates Greek dramatic verse, and Samuel L. Jackson, as only he can, serves as the chorus, regaling the viewers with commentary on the action throughout.
But what's didactic about the movie? Everything. It's the Spike Lee way. He uses tool after tool he can - graphics, songs, lectures, speeches, history lessons, plot-breaking absurdity - to make his points about gun violence, institutionalized racism, and mass incarceration of African-American men. "This is an emergency. This is an emergency," a disembodied voice periodically tells us throughout the film. The characters are not flesh and blood people so much as they are types who represent a political or social position, a point of view, and Lee's willingness to mix tones and let the story, such as it is, wander all over the place makes for some messiness. But when is Spike Lee, a fully impassioned Spike Lee, not messy? With the utter artificiality of everything and characters addressing the audience, we are constantly aware that we're watching a movie; we're unable to lose ourselves in a piece of narrative fiction. But Lee doesn't want us to "escape" as we watch. He doesn't want us to empathize with rounded characters. All Lee's techniques keep bringing the audience back to the real world and the real Chicago, and when a character who is the city's mayor appears, you wonder, "Is that supposed to be Rahm Emmanuel?"
Chi-Raq is Spike Lee working in full-on didactic mode, aiming to instruct and educate as well as entertain. There's no need for subtlety in a work like this, and he wears his political commitment on his sleeve. It's a movie Bertolt Brecht, master of didactic art, would have admired. As Brecht did with theater, Lee uses this film as a forum for political ideas loudly stated.
Part one, called "Little", shows us a boy named Chiron, who's about 11 years old, as he deals with school bullies and a crack-addicted, emotionally abusive mother. He's a shy little boy who rarely talks, but his life is made easier when he meets the local crack dealer. In the kindest of ways, the crack dealer becomes his protector and mentor, and Chiron finds comfort in the time he spends with the dealer and the dealer's girlfriend, Teresa, who becomes a surrogate mother to him.
Part two, "Chiron", follows Chiron as a teenager, still dealing with bullies and his dysfunctional mother, but he continues to have Teresa for refuge (the dealer, Juan, has died), and he experiences sexual attraction, and release, with a classmate named Kevin. Unfortunately, when he retaliates against another fellow student who has tormented him for years, Chiron's life takes a turn for the worse.
Part three, "Black", picks up with Chiron as a grown man, and I don't want to say anything more so I don't give too much away. But suffice it to say that the Chiron who you see as an adult is not exactly what you expected, though he is completely believable considering what came before, and the whole section unwinds beautifully.
While Chi-Raq works from the outside in, as it were, Moonlight works from the inside out. On the surface, we get characters we've seen before. There is a crack dealer, a troubled boy from a difficult home, a drug-addicted mother, and so on. Yet nobody in this movie conforms to standard expectations. Perhaps the mother, at times, comes closest to being a type, but even she says things that reveal an insight that makes it clear she has surprising depths. This is a movie where characters are believably complex and contradictory, and no person's identity is definable by one word or phrase. There are no types here, just fully developed, idiosyncratic human beings. The director, Barry Jenkins, doesn't push you to go to this place or that, as Spike Lee does in Chi-Raq, but he leaves gaps in the narrative that you have to fill in. As in life, there is ambiguity and indeterminacy, acceptance of imperfection and compromise. Here is a movie that does work through subtlety, that focuses on people you don't often see lavished with such attention in film.
If it seems like I'm saying Moonlight is a terrific movie, I am, but it's also an example of the best kind of non-didactic art. No message or point is pushed, but through the development of a story about specific individuals in a particular place at a certain time, much is said. People almost anywhere in the world could see and understand this film. Through understatement, richness.
So, no question, it was a satisfying weekend cinematically. I saw two movies I enjoyed a lot. If I had to pick, I'd say Moonlight is a greater film than Chi-Raq, but I also can say that generally speaking, I prefer non-didactic art to didactic. Of course there are great didactic works, too (for example, and sticking with Spike Lee, there's Do The Right Thing, 1989), but everybody has their preferences. Anyway, I'm just glad we have old hands like Spike Lee and new ones like Barry Jenkins working, and I'm curious to see what each does next and what approach each will take toward his material.