Chi-Raq vs Shameless: Poverty and Absurdism in Chicago

Spike Lee’s musical-satire film Chi-Raq shares more with HBO’s Shameless than just the backdrop of an imperfect Chicago. Both stories, which explore the city of Chicago based on how it treats its poorest families, are led by distinctive female figures and comment on the class-politics of modern America. They both even dip their toes into the absurd and metafictional. They tell stories that are at once heartwarmingly relatable, outrageously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad. For Chi-Raq and Shameless, Chicago is simply a stage and there’s a lot happening behind the scenes.

Shameless (based on the British series of the same name) is a dark comedy that follows everyday struggles of the dysfunctional Gallagher family. Over the course of the series, the Gallaghers, led by older sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum), struggle to make it through the poverty, violence, sexuality, drug-use and general chaos that defines their lives. There’s a similar struggle at work in Chi-Raq and, like Shameless, its story was adapted, though from much older source material.

A contemporary reinterpretation of the Greek comedy Lysistrata, Chi-Raq is a musical satire that sees the women of South Chicago, led by Lysistrata (Teyonnah Parris) hold a sex-strike in an attempt to force a ceasefire of the city’s gang warfare. At a simplest level, both texts are about holding an unfair world to account and about flawed people trying their best to bring about a sense of order, stability and justice to their lives. Though the women of Chi-Raq find more success than the Gallaghers do in Shameless, it’s worth looking beyond this theme.

Chi-Raq’s Lysistrata is the driving force of the film. She’s the one who kicks off the sex-strike after reading about Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. She goes onto become the de-facto leader of the younger generation of women in the film, inspiring them to commit to the strike and later seize control of a military installation before shouldering the stakes of the film on her own individual shoulders during the finale’s “sex-off”.

Shameless on the other hand, while principally an ensemble series, also features a female lead. Left to shepherd her siblings through childhood and puberty in the absence of their bipolar mother Monica (Chloe Webb) and alcoholic father Frank (William H. Macey), Fiona manifests the series central tension — is it more important to do right by yourself or do right by your family? — and her arc often forms the backbone of the series. Though she’s more fallible than Chi-Raq’s Lysistrata, Fiona’s romantic, professional and familial entanglements are always at the forefront of Shameless. By contrast, though his redeemability is often touched upon, much of the series sees Frank positioned as the root of the Gallagher’s woes: from their initial abandonment to their frequent relocation by social services. If Fiona is the agent working the hardest for the betterment of the Gallaghers, her father Frank is the opposite and his escapades and endeavors act as fuel for a lot of exaggerated and outlandish comedy in the series.

In addition, it’s the complex and frequently-problematic relationship Frank has with his children that serves as the show’s biggest tool in deconstructing what it means to be a family. Shameless is almost-constantly critiquing the notion of family. Though it’s easy to look down upon and feel sorry for the downtrodden Gallaghers, the series invites you to compare what they have against that of other families in the series — from the Milkovich’s to the Pratts.

The most obvious difference presented by Chi-Raq is that all the families explored in Shameless are predominantly-white. In addition and with the exception of the maternal relationship between Lysistrata and Miss Helen Worthy (Angela Bassett), Chi-Raq conceptualizes families in a much more binary form. All the big players in the film are all adults in healthy relationships with no children. The dynamics of family are therefore slanted towards and situated around the role of men and women and — obviously — how the sex-strike plays into that.

Finally, though both Chi-Raq and Shameless deal with pretty heavy issues like racial violence and the struggles of poverty — they both have an undeniable streak of the absurd running through them. In Chi-Raq Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) is constantly breaking through the film’s fourth wall and the film sometimes even reaches back through that same wall to comment and condemn contemporary issues facing black America — referencing Treyvon Martin, Black Lives Matter and even former-presidential candidate Ben Carson. It’s a film crackling with energy and so in-tune with it’s zeitgeist that it becomes confident enough to get away with anything — from elaborate dance-sequences to bizarre costuming choices to the blending of slang and classical language in the script.

Shameless breaks the fourth wall a little bit less and in different ways. Though it often keeps its metaphysical asides within the confines of the show’s opening recap — there’s a strangeness that often seeps into the rest of the show. Some of the show’s best characters start life as simplistic stereotypes but the writer’s behind the show sketch them out into complex personalities. However, despite this, these characters never quite shake their own strangeness. They always feel like shiny sitcom guest stars on the dirty couch of the Gallaghers.

Not that the lives of the Gallaghers are all that normal. Underage drinking, sex and drug use often pops up but it’s explicit nature is never really acknowledged or made comment upon. Shameless never flinches no matter how bizarre, grotesque and uncomfortable the series gets — it just sort-of shrugs and continues on. Like Chi-Raq, it keeps a straight face, and it’s all the more affecting for it.

On some level, it feels like it doesn’t matter how strange or unbelievable the pictures that Shameless and Chi-Raq paint of Chicago are. Their authentic portrayal of the powerless and disenfranchised acts as a counterweight to these qualities. After all, once the poverty and violence of South Chicago is repurposed for our entertainment, strangeness becomes a proposition of diminishing returns.

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