*SPOILER ALERT* *SPOILER ALERT* *SPOILER ALERT* *SPOILER ALERT*
I went into Chi-raq expecting to love, or at least like it. I’m a big Spike Lee fan. For years, I had posters of School Daze and Bamboozled, an entirely satiric film, hanging on my walls. I own most of Lee’s films on DVD. Still. And while Chi-raq has received a lot of controversy, so has every other Spike Lee film. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. So that didn’t faze me either.
But, um… the only thing keeping me from saying “hated it!” about Chi-raq and giving a Z-snap formation like Antoine Merrriweather and Blaine Edwards from In Living Color are the messages. There are great discussions about the impact of violence in Chicago—the deaths and the bullet-ridden bodies of the living. There’s a lot of “that needed to be said” about the prison industrial complex and the NRA having politicians in pocket, and how something more would be done if the same violence that occurs in some Black neighborhoods happened in White neighborhoods. It needed to pointed out where all these problems stem from, especially poverty and high unemployment rates that lead to an underground economy out of necessity. Someone with a platform as big as Lee’s needed to get on a microphone and say, “this”, ie, the violence in Chicago, “is a disgrace!” And I'm thankful that happened.
I believe Lee had good intentions with Chi-Raq. The ongoing gun violence in Chicago absolutely needed to be addressed in a big way. But what he was trying to do in theory didn’t translate well in application. Spike would have done himself and the audience more favor if he’d done a documentary about Chicago similar to how he tackled Post-Katrina New Orleans or The Million Man March in Get on the Bus. Or maybe if he’d made a straight-and-narrow drama about the impact of gun violence. Or maybe if the satire in the film was more from the Dave Chappelle School—that is to say, satire done well—than what was thrown up on the screen in Chi-raq.
Lee keeps saying in the press that people don’t understand satire and that’s why they don’t get his film. I understand satire just fine. I was an English major for Hova’s sake. This just wasn’t satire at its best, or even at a mediocre level. It was bad. At multiple points during the film, I leaned over to Hubs and asked, “Bae, what the f--k am I watching?” He was baffled too.
I have more thoughts. Here they are in no particular order:
*I kept wondering, “why the white priest?” I don’t have an issue with white folk getting involved in curbing the violence in Chicago, or any other American city. Lord knows, it’s an all-available-hands-on-deck situation. But in the film, the priest's role comes across as another white Savior type, trying to save Black people from themselves.
And it’s an especially…. odd choice given the portrayal of Black men in the film. Every Black man in the film ain’t sh-- from Nick Cannon as "Chi-raq", a rapper and gang leader, to the misogynist “mature men” with a mama’s boy type in tow, to the salesman who swings by Angela Bassett’s house to pitch life insurance about a kid. The maybe one voice of Black man reason is the guy in the wheel chair who tells Nick Cannon to slow down on the substances, and this from a man who spends his days hanging out in abandoned lot. So while he’s got sound logic, I don’t know if he qualifies as upstanding.
I don’t think Lee is obligated to show Black men in a good light. It's just weird that of all the men in the film, the white priest is the only good guy. Maybe the lack of positive Black male characters is intentional, Lee's way of commenting on an actual lack of positive Black men in the community, an indication of why there is so much violence?
But back to the white priest: the character is based on Father Pflager, a real person, who is white, who is on the frontlines of fighting violence in Chicago. Mainstream films think nothing of replacing real-life black characters with white people, so I wonder why Lee made the artistic choice to keep the priest white. Because Lee’s work is so heavily race based, I’d like to think he was aware of the white savior trope of his white priest. And because Lee is 30 years in the cinema game, I wonder if Pflager was kept as a white man to court mainstream audiences, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the more mainstream the appeal of Chi-raq, the wider the profit margin. It is the film business. And all of that said, John Cusack was good in the role.
* The sex strike, which is perhaps the biggest controversy of the film after its title, didn’t bother me. Chi-raq ia a modern take on Aristophanes' work Lysistrata from around 400 BC. And to credit, Lee includes the story of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who implemented a sex strike in Liberia. Sex strikes have also been used in Nigeria, Colombia, Sudan, Italy and more, so it’s not entirely crazy for the method to be rolled around as a way to address violence in Chicago in 2015.
Truth be told, this idea was muddled over in Brooklyn circa 2013. A local politician pulled me and a small group of other vocal women (whose names you would definitely recognize) into a meeting to test the waters. There was a lot of push back and the idea didn’t get off the ground. I only tell you about this so you know a sex strike isn’t as far fetched as some make it out to be.
*Having the characters speak in verse was an awful decision. I attended a screening where Lee introduced the film and answered questions afterward and he explained that the original play was in verse, so he kept it in Chi-raq. And, that he figured audiences would be fine with it as they've listened to the rhyming in hip-hop for the last 30 years.
So. Hip hop has a beat. And the people listeners tend to gravitate to are professional poets. Lee, and his writing partner, Kevin Willmott, are not professional poets. My ear never adjusted to listening to bad verses and with no beat to help them along. It started off fine, but weird, then just became annoying. The verses were in desperate need of a consultation from the likes of Common, Rhymefest, or Quentin Miller.
*I was actually with the film up until "Lysistrata" (Teyonah Parris) shows up to seduce the General. That’s when it all went left for me, and unfortunately, it never recovered. And in that scene is when the original title of this post popped in my head: “the Tyler Perry-ification of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq”.
With the exception of the Why Did I Get Married? series, I loathe Tyler Perry films. And it’s because the characters are one-dimensional and so many things happen that don’t make sense and never get explained. There’s also just a lot of over-the-top-ness for the sake of it being so, and the dramatics and buffoonery turn me off.
Like, I’m sure there was some message I was supposed to take away from the scene in Chi-raq with the General riding the cannon in his Confederate flag underpants, but what was that message exactly? Was that just an attempt to inject humor? Or to showcase the power of the P? Meh… if so, it could have been done better. It was jarring with the tone of the film thus far and seemed more fitting for an Adam Sandler film or the American Pie series.
And why did the women take over the armory? Riddle me that. Because I've thought about it and asked people about it, and nobody gets it. (And yes, I know in the original play that the women take over the Acropolis, but that's not enough to explain why the women do it here, especially when the vast majority of the audience hasn't and won't read the play.) And why did ‘ol girl let the raving misogynist men into the armory? I mean, if her man was in the group and she wanted some D, it would have made sense. If the men were hot and sexy, I would have understood that too. But a bunch of ranting middle-aged misogynists and a mama’s boy? Why that group of men?
And what exactly did the men expect to accomplish, rushing in with keys and calling obvious feminists filled with righteous anger a bunch of hos and bitches?
And the televised fuck-off on the brass bed was just one, big “wait, what?” moment So, after a three-month stand off, in which Nick Cannon is cheating on his main girl, all the drama boils down to who can make the other reach an orgasm first, and that will end the sex strike? WHAT?!
And because women agree to have sex again, all the Fortune 500 companies are pledging jobs to employ every person in Chicago? Huh?
*Jennifer Hudson was good as the grieving mother. And I kept wishing that the movie revolved around what life is like for a mother who has just lost a child to violence. I started thinking about that when JHud is out in the street scrubbing her kid’s blood and completely losing it. That… hurt.
We have some idea of what the immediate aftermath is for a mother who's lost a child because we’ve seen the breakdowns the day of and the day after and the public life on the news. But what are those private moments like? What is that first night like trying to go to sleep? Or when you finally regain an appetite and open the cabinet and see the box of kid’s cereal there? Or pass the kid’s room and smell them? Or even “hear” them? (I can’t be the only one that occasionally hears a dead relative’s voice chime in randomly.) How does that loss affect a mother, or even a whole family? And yes, I realize I’m asking for a whole different film, but I think it might be more powerful than what was presented.
* The choreography didn’t bother me as a concept, but the extra-ness of it did. It was just too much and too corny. “NO pussy, no peace”? Fine. “I will deny all access and entrance”? Fine. Then the chant kept going on and on and talking about “snatches” and “nappy pouches”. Ugh!
*Samuel L. Jackson as the one-man chorus in Day-Glo suits didn’t bother me either. Dave Chappelle was funny as hell. He’s only in one scene and it didn’t further the storyline in any real way, but iCackled when Snipes told a man to get on the pole and Dave was like, “it’s not that kind of club, young man.” I’m all for the random scene when it’s actually funny. That was cinematic gold.
*I liked that the elders were shown participating, at least the women elders. This is an all-hand-on-deck issue, not just for young people. The grown ass men were a profound disappointment, but I've already covered that.
*Teyonah is a beautiful woman. I liked Snipes as Cyclops. I forgot he could do funny. Nick Cannon as a gangster and rapper didn’t raise my brows, and lent more credence to the (poor) satire of it all. I also wasn’t agitated by his acting, which seems to be a common complaint. I thought he did a good job. Angela Bassett always brings her A-game and her cursing out the insurance guy was hee-lar-ious.
*I’d passed off a lot of the outrage about the film coming from Chicago as people being sensitive about the portrayal of their city or having an “outsider” come in to tell such a nuanced story. I don’t—and won’t—get everything wrong with Chi-raq because I haven’t been on the ground to get the real story. But even as another outsider, I get the legitimate beef the natives have with Chi-raq. Even when a tale of your city isn’t entirely accurate and doesn’t catch all the nuances, you want the story to be told well. Chi-raq didn’t do that. It didn’t just miss the mark, most of the film went off the whole damn grid.