Spike Lee has been one of my favorite filmmakers since 1989’s School Daze. His earlier career reflected a steady ascent, with Lee giving us classics like Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X; the latter widely considered his best work to date. No stranger to controversy and never afraid to challenge the white power structure, Lee’s career hasn’t always been as commercially successful as it is culturally relevant. I’ll always give Spike a fair shot, so even though the trailer for Chi-Raq left me skeptical, I respect his intentions as an auteur and wanted to see the film for myself.
You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past couple of years not to hear about the gun violence plaguing the city of Chicago. Like many major cities, Chicago is a dual-sided metropolis. On the one hand the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama called it home. It boasts the “Magnificent Mile,” a renowned street dotted by high-end retailers and fine restaurants. On the other hand, it was home to one of the most notorious housing projects in the nation, and the fatalities reported in any given weekend could rival reports from Iraq, hence the macabre moniker “Chi-Raq.” There are significant cultural, psychological and social observations worth exploring about Chicago, and film could be a useful medium in tackling the deeply complex issues afflicting the city and its residents. Lee seemed like the perfect director for such a task, given his track record of political consciousness – but I’m not sure the casual movie fan will understand his artistic approach.
Rather than a documentary (like his prior work in 4 Little Girls) or a dramatic, original call to action (Get on the Bus) using real life events, Lee chose a unique way to portray Chicago. Chi-Raq is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, a comedy depicting its female protagonist’s brilliant plan to end the Peloponnesian War through celibacy, by imploring women to freeze all the men out of their bedrooms in a call to arms to end the suffering. Applying this satirical theme to modern day Chicago, the story is paralleled through local Chicago rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, Roll Bounce) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Dear White People). Chi-Raq is the stereotypical rapper: young, arrogant and ignorant. Ambitiously striving to transcend his environment through music, his violent behavior illustrates how he remains a product of it.
Chi-Raq’s scenes play out musically, delivered in a lyrical, sometimes rhyming cadence. Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) features as Dolmedes, a fourth wall breaking narrator who frames our perception of Chi-Raq, furthering the action and reminding us that the film’s participants are in dire straits. The film served as a critique of our government and current political climate and a plea to members of the Black community to end our collective apathy demonstrated by misguided thinking like the “stop snitching” movement. Ultimately, I doubt that Lee’s film is accessible in a worthwhile way to the average viewer. Some may misinterpret his farcical approach, given the serious subject matter. Intellectuals and “progressive” types comprise his most likely audience – and they aren’t the ones killing each other.
Although I don’t think Lee crafted a completely successful film, it was not without its bright spots. Teyonna Parris as Lysistrata had more screen time than any other character, and she was captivating throughout. The cinematography was rich and colorful, and some scenes perfectly captured the city’s beauty. Nick Cannon was serviceable as Chi-Raq, though it was hard to take him seriously at times. I understand that the film is a satire, but there were some very cringe-worthy bits of dialogue I couldn’t ignore. All in all, it was a mixed bag for me. Again, I appreciate what Spike was trying to do with the film, but I’m not sure it’s accessible to average viewers in a way that makes it a worthwhile cinematic undertaking. Grade: C