NEW YORK >> Spike Lee's earliest films, the low budget "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), and the brilliant "Do the Right Thing" (1989), were personal works about complex aspects of black life that the larger public had never seen before on the screen. The latter film imaginatively touched on such themes as police brutality, growing gentrification, and both black and white racism. Since then he has made a number of other films — some that fell flat and others that were artistic though rarely commercial successes like "Clockers," "25th Hour," "Malcolm X," and "Inside Man."
His latest work, "Chi-raq," is a deeply felt, vivid and ambitious film that is more successful in provoking controversy and discussion than as a work of art. Lee has taken Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," a 2,500-year-old play about an ancient Greek heroine leading an anti-war sex strike, and has updated it into a political satire and oratorio about police and gang violence, poverty, the worship of the gun and misogyny in Rahm Emanuel's roiling Chicago.
The film is repetitive, inchoate, and often looks like nothing more then crude agitprop. But it also contains striking images, a virtuoso display of film technique, and a few moving sequences like John Cusack as an angry white activist Catholic priest emotionally addressing his black congregation and decrying political cowardice, the NRA, and the silence of black witnesses fearful of reprisal from gang members.
Lee is enraged here about a great many things. But though he has no use for the brutal Chicago police and the city's hypocritical politicos, the film is most angered by black gangbangers who have turned Chicago's South Side into a combat zone. (The film's title relates to the fact that Chicago has seen more Americans killed in the last 15 years than the Afghan and Iraq conflicts combined.) Lee consciously avoids making a film where African-Americans are seen just as victims of oppressive and racist social forces, but courageously views the machismo and gun culture of the inner city as equally responsible for the mayhem that saturates the city's streets.
"Chi-raq" is earnest and passionate, and its message is one that demands our attention. Still, I wish his messy and simplistic script could have been as bold as the film's formal conception. The faults of "Chi-raq" aside, the film stands as a rarity in commenting directly, and without ever becoming dogmatic, on painful urban problems that often seem insoluble.
Turning to another art form: In the 1970s my wife and I and our young daughter spent two sabbatical years in London. We were much younger then and inexhaustibly explored the city's museums, neighborhoods, parks, and, given that it was London (theater tickets were very reasonable then), attended many more serious plays than we normally did in New York.
The '70s were a halcyon time for British theater. A slew of young playwrights produced first-rate, intellectually challenging plays that held up a mirror to English society. We watched the works of young, rising playwrights like Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Howard Barker, Trevor Griffiths, and David Hare. They often were given arresting productions, since Peter Hall at the National Theater and Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company had opened their stages to new plays and produced a great many of them.
Among those many gifted playwrights I developed a special feeling for the work of probably the best known and most commercially successful of them, David Hare. When the National Theatre published its poll of the hundred best plays of the 20th century, Hare had written five of them.
I've been thinking about Hare, since we last saw "Skylight," his theatrically alive and eloquent debate between two former lovers with different political/social perspectives centering on what values to live by in a greed-ridden society. He has also just written a harshly critical and self-critical memoir, "The Blue Touch Paper" (WW Norton) that takes his very rich artistic life up only to 1979.
Hare was a product of a repressed suburban boyhood. His father was a philandering purser for the merchant navy and was "perpetually absent," and his mother constantly fearful. He attended a minor public school, followed by Cambridge, and then entered the theater as playwright/director at a time when innumerable small theater companies were founded to put on plays that "could articulate a timely kind of discontent" and challenge the offerings of the commercial West End theater.
The memoir richly evokes a portrait of the '70s English theater: the many personal enmities and friendships, the tribulations and rewards involved in mounting productions, and the famous names that make cameo appearances. One of them is Lawrence Olivier, who aroused terror in Hare, and another is Helen Mirren, whom Hare chose to play the gutsy, controlling rock-and-roll singer Maggie in "Teeth 'n' Smiles" (1975). The character "had to be able to scare the living daylights out of every man she met."
Hare's artistic vision
Hare is very open about his passionate love affair with Kate Nelligan, the star of his first major success in 1978, "Plenty" (women often play central roles in Hare's plays), that broke up his marriage. However, what interests me most about Hare is what he conveys about his artistic vision.
Hare, has always been a politically engaged writer, but never a sectarian. He felt it was not enough to have good intentions, but what was needed was a capacity to realize them aesthetically. Though his plays are written from a left perspective, they have always rejected exhortation and caricature in favor of projecting varied and complex points of view.
Writing about English theater, I want to compliment director Eric Hill and his cast at the Berkshire Theater Festival for their stunning production in October of Harold Pinter's elusive, stylized vision of family combat, "The Homecoming."