Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq—named after Chicago’s divisive alias—could have been released on any day in the past two years and been relevant. As is, the movie arrives the week after the city finally released footage of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald taking 16 Chicago P.D. bullets to his grave.
Black audiences have long looked to Lee to reconcile pain through his films, and Chicago’s violent streak has been ripe for exploration. But when the trailer for Chi-Raq dropped—revealing itself as a satire about a sex strike amid gang shootings—a portion of its intended audience willfully tapped out of Spike’s visual treatment of local trauma, the part of his fanbase that maybe distrusts his ability to contextualize present-day black life given his latter-career output (particularly, for me, the very disturbing, heavy-handed Red Hook Summer). Many wondered how he would shape this perfect storm of dark matter.
It’s true that Chi-Raq is his least frustrating work in recent years. It’s bombastic, nervy and funny in parts (not as bad as it should be), highly contentious and a definite conversation piece. It’s more a statement of talking points than a clear message, which is perhaps proof that we no longer need to lean on Spike for real cinematic enlightenment. That may be more a sign of generational divide than common consensus.
Within the first 10 minutes of Chi-Raq—following a rundown of statistics about devastating murder rates in Chicago—a shooting breaks out in a club where rapper/gang member Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is performing on stage. The crowd screams and ducks. Chi-Raq retaliates. The scene is familiar. It’s in this span that Lee’s latest work begins its convoluted narrative on gun and gang violence, black lives, murder, loss, suffering, government corruption in Southside Chicago, and the far too muddled concept of black-on-black crime. It’s an attempt to sculpt a view of an apparent war zone in a city that’s seen 439 murders this year.
Commendable is the fact that the story is centered around women of color, who not only dictate the narrative but claim sexual agency, starting with its lead character Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), whose boyfriend is the rapper Chi-Raq. Described as a woman so beautiful she “made George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson wanna kiss her” (Really.), she initiates a citywide sex strike to urge the gangs in the neighborhood (the Trojans and the Spartans) to negotiate a truce and stop killing. She’s inspired in part by a convo with her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and video footage of the Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike—this is no doubt a great acknowledgment to see on a wide screen.
As part of their vow, the women in Chi-Raq pledge, comically: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance/from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction/in erection.” “No peace, no pussy!” And so on.
This, of course, leads to massive male sexual frustration, and all the intended humor that comes with it, phallic allusions and all (lots of blue balls jokes), as the sexual lockdown grows into a global movement. The women swiftly, thankfully, strike down much of the misogyny that creeps out after the shutdown of “the penis power grid,” in the words of Dave Chappelle, who cameos as a strip club owner. The tale is further spun through hokey monologues from Samuel L. Jackson (as Dolomedes), a poetic device drawn from the Greek Lysistrata play structure on which the movie is based. That rhyming scheme and Empire-level hamminess persists through the entire film in a fashion that vacillates between entertaining and/or nauseating depending on your patience level for lines like, “Dylann Storm Roof/He’s the proof/Post-racial...Poof!”
What’s most disconcerting about Chi-Raq is that the angle of female empowerment feels so at odds with the movie’s overall diluted message, which seems to put a large onus on black people to, in Lee’s words, “Wake up” and search inward. It’s particularly confounding in the context of his real-life quotes. “We cannot be out there going ya-ya-ya there [Ed note: He means protesting] and then when it comes to young brothers killing themselves, then mum’s the word,” he’s said. “No one’s saying nothing? You can’t ignore that we are killing ourselves, too.” Who exactly is ignoring it?
Most of Chi-Raq is a strange interplay of sex and violence—men wielding power and women looking to reclaim it. When a rival gang member sets fire to Chi-Raq’s apartment, it’s right after he’s done having sex with Lysistrata. When she visits the racist, horny General King Kong, she plays him through foreplay, in the most disturbing scene of the movie. And the penile frustration closely mirrors that of the Chi residents fed up with murders and the looming fear of death. Ongoing battles play out between the men and women, and between the women and the city. Plenty of sides are shown—too many—like a thinkpiece responding to a thinkpiece.
I wanted this to be funny, but not so over-the-top silly, and definitely more penetrating. I wanted to hate it and didn’t. I hoped to love it but didn’t. It’s neither a total failure, nor a masterpiece. Parris is commanding with the material, while Cannon is surprisingly okay at playing a tough gangster, taking into consideration the whole parody aspect. Wesley Snipes’ role as an unfunny pimp-voiced lead gang member was unnecessary.
Chi-Raq grasps all the messy conversations about black-on-black crime and puts emphasis on cleaning up the city. And while it doesn’t at all clear government officials of blame (they’re depicted as tone-deaf for the most part), there’s an infuriating set of half-provocative puzzle pieces presented. One minute Jennifer Hudson’s grieving mother character Irene is begging onlookers to come forward as witnesses. The next, John Cusack, as Father Mike Corridan, is preaching about self-inflicted genocide and black people carrying out the job of the Man. The takeaway, ultimately, is: What the hell is Spike Lee saying?
On the night of the film’s New York premiere, Lee, along with Reverend Al Sharpton, led a march to protest gun violence by law enforcement and within black communities. Though not nearly enough, Chi-Raq lightly touches on cop shootings (the women outright name, at one point, victims like Mike Brown and Sandra Bland). Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott chose to position this movie as a satire about gang culture in Chicago, to frustrating effect. No one film can hold the answers, but my interest in Spike’s exploration of this topic is low. Perhaps more important than the question of whether he should be humoring violence among black people is whether we really want to laugh with him. If Spike’s point is that all these circular conversations around black lives exist in overlapping, equally vexing Venn diagrams, then maybe his movie achieves its goal of being too many things and yet nothing quite substantial.
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Image via Vimeo/Amazon Studios