I genuinely don’t know where to begin. All I know is that I watched Chi-Raq last night and I feel…feelings. So let me tease them out.
First of all, Chi-Raq is a beautiful film, visually. Director Spike Lee is up to all of his old tricks, and a few new ones. There’s striking bold text, vibrant shades of lipstick on Teyonah Parris’s Lysistrata, crisp outdoor scenes, warm and cozy house space. For some innovation, Spike finesses his trademark double dolly shot into a double-double-dolly shot (a quadruple dolly?). The purple and orange of the Spartan and Trojan gangs, respectively (the Trojans filling in for the source comedy Lysistrata’s Athenians), show through in the wardrobe in a way that doesn’t feel hackneyed and adds to a real sense of vibrancy in the version of Chicago that Spike Lee has created. Little details, like Nick Cannon’s titular Chi-Raq’s tattoos or the elaborate Spartan flag hanging over his household, both add layers to the film and connect it to that context.
The first source material of Lysistrata shows through in Lee’s insistence on using verse in the dialogue. There are many places where it works quite well and seems to dovetail with the film’s focus on hip-hop. Where the verse works, it feels like street freestyles. But the dialogue gets ultra clunky and cringeworthy in some places, especially the sex scenes, and adds plenty of unintentional facepalm humor in places that I imagine Spike sees as very serious. The first sex scene between Chi-Raq and Lysistrata is absolutely hilarious in just how bad it is. Samuel Jackson’s Dolmedes, the stand-in for the Greek chorus, is colorful, vibrant, in turns crass and hilarious, and an example of where the verse works the best. His character is exactly where the template, Spike’s directorial vision, the dialogue, the wardrobe, and the overarching vision of the film actually come together the best.
There are other places where the film falls apart though.
The other characters are a mixed bag. While Parris’ Lysistrata and Wesley Snipes’ Cyclops (seriously, bravo Wesley. Bravo.) are brilliant, Cannon feels out of place as moody Chi-Raq. It’s just hard to buy Cannon as a street-hardened, emotionally damaged gang leader, and his best qualities of humor and wit are lost, whereas the other main characters get plenty of mileage out of both. John Cusack’s casting as a streetwise priest is interesting, but most times Spike mishandles him completely. Jennifer Hudson’s casting as Irene drew plenty of attention as her own real-life family suffered horribly from violence in Chicago, but here she is reduced to a weeping mother with no character of her own. Much of the rest of the cast, save a few hilarious cameos by Dave Chappelle and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., feels anonymous.
There are times when the comedic nature of the Lysistrata template clashes with the real tragedies of black deaths. It’s difficult to balance Spike’s classic side-splitting, battle-of-the-sexes style humor with the fact that the characters are clashing over fictionalized versions of real deaths. Although the film is best enjoyed as an abstraction, Chicago itself is not an abstraction, and while I think humor can be injected almost anywhere, it seems like more energy was granted to fleshing out comedic timing than actually addressing the real tragedies that inform the film. Again, the most minor comedic characters have brilliant moments, while characters affected most by violence are flat.
These conflicts stem from what I believe to be Spike’s own conflicting views of black violence and systemic racism. In the run-up to the film’s release, Spike has repeated the groan-inducing “but what about black on black crime?” motto as a reaction to Black Lives Matter protests so much that it makes my head hurt. That sentiment is clearly front and center in Chi-Raq, and as is Spike’s wont, is often done with little subtlety. But there are other sentiments too. Despite Spike’s obliviousness in the run-up (which I believe to be a showman’s game), there are acknowledgements of police violence, America’s gun culture, the prison-industrial complex, racialized poverty, and mental health issues. But too often, instead of tackling the truly tall task of really understanding how these issues relate to violence in black communities, Spike goes for hand-waving. In no place is this more evident than the high horse, white man preaching, Cusack speech at the film’s core.
I suspect a major – and fair – criticism of the film will come because of its treatment of women. Spike has never dealt deftly with feminism, and despite it originating in the source material, the idea that women’s empowerment is solely rooted in sexual control over men should be scrutinized. The film also treats frankly rapey responses from men to Lysistrata’s tactics as levity, when in fact they are often disturbing. The relative strength of several male characters versus the flatness of several women is also a testament to Spike’s enduring gender imbalance in character development.
That all isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty to digest in Chi-Raq, or that it isn’t a good film. I think it might be good, especially when compared against Spike’s frankly awful recent feature works, but it’s tough to fairly assess when the message is so jumbled and reactionary. And although the point of Spike’s work has often been big bold letter unsubtle “wake up!” style messages, it’s fair to note that film critique will consider the manner in which the message is conveyed as much as the message itself. That manner is interesting, fresh, colorful, and at times endearing, no matter how much Spike’s sanctimony bothers me. I also hate the title, and even after the film’s attempt to justify its use, I think it’s fine to not watch based on that merit alone. Luckily, I am not a film critic.
All in all, those who fall closer to Spike’s sensibilities might love Chi-Raq. It’ll probably lend some annoying ammunition to the All Lives Matter crowd that watches (or doesn’t watch, but reads about) it uncritically. But like all of Spike’s decent-to-better films, Chi-Raq will get folks talking. That might be enough to go and see it. Might not be, though.