Overview: The girlfriend of a gang leader organizes a revolution in which all men are denied sex after the death of a young girl creates the tipping point for a south side Chicago neighborhood plagued by gun violence. Roadside Attractions; 2015; Rated R; 118 minutes.
The Gospel According to Spike Lee: Based on the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Chi-Raq takes classical history and black history and constructs a modern fable about the issues of race and violence facing America. Stemming from the comparison of the violence of Chicago’s south side and the Iraq War, Chi-Raq leans upon the responsibility each one of us has to destabilize violence in the face of government restrictions, not just in Chicago, or America, but worldwide. Tackling everything from gang violence, gun accessibility, black on black crime, police brutality, NRA pundits, the responsibilities of white pastors, and the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland (this list goes on), Chi-Raq is massively ambitious, albeit passionately cluttered in tonal, narrative, and thematic measure.
As strange as it sounds, the the most immediate film comparison I can think to make with Chi-Raq is against Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Like that film, Chi-Raq juggles a multitude of characters, subplots, and stylistic influences. Lee’s film may be based on a single source, but it never bows to traditional narrative structures, ultimately becoming an art piece that some will find alienating and off-putting and others will find bold and uncompromising.
Southside: It comes as no surprise that what works best in Chi-Raq is the detailed attention given to the supporting characters who bring the neighborhood to life. The film clearly exists in a heightened reality that works like a musical, or a rap musical, with its rhyming dialogue, stylized costumes, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes fulfilling the role of Greek chorus. But the people who populate this reality feel real; their emotions, language, and struggles have weight. While the film has been labeled as satire, the emotional impact of gang violence, and the disillusion many of these characters face when confronted with the consequences of their “thug life,” are unlikely to produce many laughs. Lee centers most of the film’s dramatic weight on the diverging paths of gang leader Chi-raq (Nick Cannon) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), while aiming the humor squarely on the sexual nature of the film.
Chi-Raq never stood a chance in avoiding controversy with sex as its central narrative device, and its infatuation with the female body. But these women, led by Lysistrata, are given power and treated with a reverence that we rarely see in films of this ilk. The film’s editorial choices and camera focus certainly raise questions over what constitutes “exploitation” and what can be defined as “feminism.” The film uses the lack of sex for both men and women as a constant source of humor—a joke that elevates the power of sex and occasionally threatens to undermine the film’s core focus. When the film cuts back to the serious dramatic moments of Chi-raq’s internal crisis, Father Corrigan’s (John Cusack) struggle to aid the black community, and Irene’s (Jennifer Hudson) grief over losing her daughter, the film’s tonal shifts create an uneven use of comedy. But even in the face of these deviations, Lee’s energetic direction and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography give the film a sense of control and purpose even as the film threatens to collapse under its own weight. Spike Lee may have to fight for funds for his films, but Chi-Raq looks like a studio production and is a consistent pleasure to watch.
The Right Thing: Chi-Raq has a lot to say, but it doesn’t make an entirely convincing case that it’s made for the people it’s preaching to. Its messages and lessons fall in line with people who already sided with the film’s interests before they entered the theatre, but for gang members and NRA pundits this film will likely make little difference. It somehow manages to talk down to and mock urban existence while being too ingrained in that same culture to effect the minds of politicians. It’s difficult not to compare each of Lee’s films with his seminal Do the Right Thing, but Chi-Raq, for all of its racial politics doesn’t reach that same cinematic height. Do the Right Thing made people on all sides of America’s racial equation uncomfortable and provided a way to ask questions and have conversations. Chi-Raq tells audiences what the right thing is but leaves little room for conversation. In Lee’s eyes, this is a conversation that should be over. Unsubtle and occasionally uninviting, Chi-Raq proposes that we don’t need any more subtly or hand-holding when it comes to guns in America. Expectedly angry, but also funny, sad, smart, and at times powerful, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s vision of America, encompassing everything he wants to say about it.
Overall: Despite its lush color palate, bumping soundtrack, and inherent sex appeal, Chi-Raq’s satire doesn’t go down easy, but we’d all do well to take heed and listen up.