“Chi-Raq” Is a Raison d’Être in Search of a Movie

Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015)

It has now been a week since I saw the latest film by Spike Lee, and I have been unsure of what to write. Rarely have I felt such a disconnect from my desire to like a movie and my intense dislike of that movie upon viewing. Mr. Lee has always been a problematic filmmaker for me – his artistic ambitions sometimes outstripping his vision or even abilities – and yet he has managed to create some of the best films about race, American urban environments, gender and social class ever made. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit as evidence for my claim such movies as She’s Gotta Have ItSchool DazeDo the Right Thing, Mo’ Better BluesJungle FeverMalcolm X, on the fiction side of things, and 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, on the documentary side. If the selection of fiction films betrays my preference for the younger Lee, that’s because I see issues arising – during the 1990s – in his storytelling as the acclaim grew. For every Inside Man (a terrific bank-heist thriller that eschews Lee’s usual ideological mission), there’s a mess of a movie like Bamboozled, the closest thing Chi-Raq has to a stylistic cousin from within the Lee canon. Both that film and this new one mistake burlesque for insight, coming close to saying something important before devolving into an over-the-top caricature of broad satire.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I have met Spike Lee – while I was in graduate school at NYU, where he taught a third-year seminar in the MFA filmmaking program – and found him perfectly charming, if not always a discerning critic of his own work (but who is?). I consider him one of the great (if flawed) living American filmmakers, and in spite of my bias for the early stuff, I still always hold out hope that the next Spike Lee film will move me as much as did Do the Right Thing (to me, his undisputed masterpiece). So I went into Chi-Raq with a certain amount of positive expectation. Set in a Chicago riven by gun violence, it’s a timely film, if there ever was one, with the current political crisis in Chicago over the shooting, by police, of an unarmed African-American man as he lay on the ground. Unfortunately, despite a very promising opening, the movie, with its uneven pacing, acting and screenplay, quickly alienated me from its characters and premise.

The film is an adaptation of the satirical ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, written around 400 BCE by Aristophanes, in which the womenfolk of warring armies decide to withhold sex form their men in order to broker a peace. Here, we are in gangland Chicago, and as our story begins, a rapper/gangster named Chi-Raq (rapper/producer Nick Cannon)  – his name comes from the pejorative moniker for his hometown – performs on stage while rival gang members plot his demise. Suddenly, the performance freezes, allowing Samuel L. Jackson (soon to be seen again in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight) to address us, the audience, as the effective Greek chorus of the proceedings. He’ll be with us throughout, as our guide, and in this way he plays much the same role as he did in Do the Right Thing, as the radio DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy. In fact, not content to allow this allusion to remain just that, Lee even has Jackson say, “Wake up!” at one point (Love Daddy’s signature line). And thus we have the main problem with the film exposed in full: nothing is subtext; all is in-your-face mega-text, with no reprieve.

And yet … the themes of the film matter so much. After a failed attempt on his life, Chi-Raq goes ballistic, shooting up a street corner where he accidentally kills a young girl. Gun violence is a blight on our country – especially in our cities, mass shootings elsewhere notwithstanding – and Lee’s outrage at our inability or unwillingness to solve the issue is much needed. It’s just too bad that he couldn’t channel this outrage into a more effective instrument.

But there is one excellent reason to see the movie, and that is Teyonah Parris (Dear White People). She plays Lysistrata – Chi-Raq’s girlfriend – and after that little girl is killed, she gathers the women from both sides and convinces them to withhold sex from the menfolk. There’s a great liveliness to these initial scenes that is terrific fun, in spite of the tragedies on screen, and before the film goes off the rails. Everyone speaks in verse, which is both an homage to Aristophanes and a nice mirroring of the hip-hop on the soundtrack. Paris – unlike Cannon, sadly – is a magnetic screen presence, and even in the later sequences where the obvious points are made, and then made again, and then made once more, she is always a pleasure to watch.

The rest of the cast is barely up to her level, unfortunately: John Cusack (Love & Mercy), for example, is horribly miscast as an emoting street priest; the background extras often look like they don’t know what they’re doing, the worst among them Felicia Pearson (Snoop on The Wire), who keeps looking at the camera as if no one will notice; poor Isiah Whitlock Jr., in a small role, is made to look directly at the camera and say an extensively drawn out SH*T, in a direct reference to his portrayal of State Sen. R. Clayton ‘Clay’ Davis on The Wire. There’s no question that Lee needed someone in his corner to help rein in the excess. Only Jackson and Angela Bassett (Black Nativity) – and she’s always good – emerge unscathed. For the rest, it’s an embarrassment, including for composer Terence Blanchard (Red Tails), whose music is one of the most intrusive scores I have heard in a while.

So I cannot recommend, although I wish I could. We need more films that tackle the toll of guns and violence on our society. I therefore applaud and admire Lee’s intentions. But I could not stand the movie.

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