Chi-Raq is sometimes very funny, often obnoxious and never boring.
An unexpected contender has joined J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars and Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters as the most feverishly prejudged film in recent memory: Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. The gadfly director had, like Abrams and Feig, already exposed himself to fanboy wrath in 2013 by remaking Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. But the indignation that ushered Chi-Raq to its world premiere last month was an especially righteous sort, no doubt because Lee was taking on a considerably more sacred property: Chicago’s epidemic of gang-related gun violence, which has, of this writing, already claimed 416 lives, and left 2,362 more wounded, in 2015 alone.
The controversy began with little more than a name. Chi-Raq’s is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq that apparently circulates among the city’s majority-Black South Side, bitterly reflecting the feeling of living in a warzone. Locals, and the politicians purporting to speak for them, felt it might poison the well for a region already struggling to reverse its reputation for social and economic dereliction.
Then came the trailer, and with it the confirmation of rumors that Chi-Raq’s plot would be an adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which the title character tries to end the Peloponnesian War with a sex strike. The response was prompt and fierce, as Chicagoans took to blogs, Twitter and the video’s comment section to dismiss Lee’s film sight unseen. Even the cautiously optimistic were put off by the trailer’s punchy aesthetics, but those who already suspected that the Brooklyn-bred filmmaker would be incapable of representing Chicago authentically had all the confirmation they needed from the premise alone. As blogger Ernest Owens put it in an open letter to Lee, “We don’t need a Greek comedy on what is currently a tragedy in one of the most landmark American cities – we need your truth.”
Some fellow Chicagoans posted in the same venues cautioning against the obvious fallacy of suspending due process in the court of public opinion. Less commented on, but more pressing, was the assumption that Lee’s aesthetic choices were somehow inherently unethical. Owens’ words present a textbook case of what the late, great rap group Das Racist once called “the false dichotomy between jokes and serious shit.” Like many common sense precepts, the idea that putting something in a comedic context is automatically to make light of it is both seemingly self-evident and profoundly misguided, based on the equally unsteady notion that humor is primarily a distancing mechanism. Ditto the recourse to Greek drama, which many clearly took to be little more than a formal exercise. Ironically, most preemptive detractors, including Owens, invoked Do The Right Thing (1989) to buttress their disappointment, apparently forgetting that Lee’s devastating portrait of inner-city race relations had a Greek chorus, abided by Aristotle’s three dramatic unities and – most important – was very, very funny.
Now, Chi-Raq is in wide release, the first feature of Amazon Studios, who will put it out on Amazon Instant Video early next year. That hasn’t stopped Chance the Rapper from calling the film out as “goofy,” “exploitative” and “problematic,” backing his claims with his South Side upbringing rather than any evidence of having actually seen it. I have, and can report credibly that Chi-Raq is every bit the mannered farce it was feared to be. It features self-aware cameos, song-and-dance numbers and dialogue written entirely in verse. It’s bawdy and broadly satirical. It also pauses periodically to jerk tears and deliver polemics, exploring a broad range of interrelated issues, including but not limited to police brutality, Black literacy, systemic poverty, governmental corruption, de facto segregation and upward mobility among people of color. It is, in short, a Spike Lee joint through and through: sprawling, spastic, sexually simplistic (more on that later), more than a little shameless and not at all subtle. Chi-Raq flies right in the face of any claims that only reverent naturalism is appropriate for parsing out the complexities, and honoring the victims, of Chicago’s ongoing gun crisis.
It’s also, alas, not very good. Chi-Raq trusts its audience to sync up to its irregular rhythms, only to abandon that trust, ending its high-stakes discussion with romantic couple formation and a mawkish melodramatic twist. These narrative moves are no mere genre compromise, either. They manifest a fundamental confusion at the level of the film’s politics. Chi-Raq expends a great many words and images depicting Chicago’s gang warfare as a complex, historically-determined problem, only to embrace its sex strike premise so uncritically as to reduce it all to basic hormonal folly.
The story is set in motion by the discovery of a child, shot to death in an unspecified South Side street (strongly hinted as Englewood, the notoriously dangerous neighborhood where much of Chi-Raq was filmed). The circumstances surrounding the death are murky, but the child’s mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), has no doubt that she was a casualty of the ongoing turf war between two local gangs: the Spartans, led by Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a fictional rapper in the style of Chicago’s Lil Durk and Chief Keef; and the Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Urged by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), the conscious neighborhood Earth mother, to intervene on her boyfriend’s behavior, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Perris) unites both gangs’ various lovers to stage a sex strike until a truce is brokered. They besiege and occupy the General Jones Armory, and international attention soon follows, triggering worldwide solidarity strikes against any and all violence.
There’s an argument to be made that the sex strike stuff isn’t an interpretive end so much as a rhetorical means. Sex is the great leveler in Chi-Raq, not only occasioning a tireless stream of puns, euphemisms and date-friendly jokes, but more importantly reducing gang members, National Guardsmen, Masons and politicians to the same state of fleshly desperation. The implication is that the hierarchy of male power is a house of cards, ready to be toppled once its players are denied one of the pillars of patriarchal privilege: access to sex.
Implicit here also is a conflation of the Spartans and Trojans with their counterparts in law enforcement and politics, echoing the discourse of contemporary Black liberation activism, which pointedly refers to police forces as armed gangs and police brutality as terrorism. All that makes Black male violence exceptional is its criminalization. In one of his rare understated touches, Lee pushes back against racist myths that locate a surplus of lust and aggression in Black male bodies and identify lawlessness as an essential trait. Chi-Raq is careful to represent Black criminal activity as both joyless and meaningless. The violence that opens the film is part of a long chain of retaliation, and the dominant mood when Chi-Raq is shown idling on Spartan turf is less menace than boredom. Only during sex scenes does he deign to crack a smile.
Lee’s corrective approach is commendable, yet ironically, it has the effect of contributing to Chi-Raq’s stylized mise-en-scène by depriving the gang members of any real malice. One of the funnier running themes of the pre-release backlash was disbelief that Nick Cannon could be cast within orbit of a credible thug, and his Chi-Raq offers little to the contrary, his chiseled, inked physique notwithstanding. Wesley Snipes, meanwhile, lampoons his action hero legacy, playing Cyclops as an adenoidal narcissist. The color-coded standoffs between their crews, especially sans the frisson of gunfire, have all the gravity of the Sharks fighting the Jets (without any dance-offs to match).
Nowhere is the film’s enfeebled bearing on reality felt so strongly, though, as it is in the men’s relationship to the striking women. Rendering its men as essentially harmless buffoons allows Chi-Raq to advance a fiction in which a woman’s “no” is fully honored. This is painfully, unequivocally bogus. To quote one prematurely incensed yet undeniably prescient blogger asked after viewing the trailer, “You must not know what it’s like to ride the Red Line alone?” Yes, the film is satire, but satire exaggerates actuality to absurdity. Here, Chi-Raq simply erases it. That’s still not to say that adapting Lysistrata to real world conditions is ipso facto doomed to failure. As Salamishah Tillet chronicles for the New York Times, Aristophanes’ comedy has been a staple of African-American theatrical tradition since the 1930s. A smarter, more honest film might have begun with the sex strike premise, only to have it fail when faced with the predatorial entitlement that is inextricable from the capitalist, racist patriarchy in which inner-city violence thrives. That would be a very different film, of course; a considerably less audience-friendly one, at the very least.
It doesn’t help that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, Spike Lee really seems to think a sex strike could work. He suggested to Stephen Colbert that it might help stem the tide of rape on college campuses, among other things. Lee has a history of foot-in-mouth disease (consider his claim that he couldn’t have written anti-Semitic characters in Mo’ Better Blues, because so many Hollywood producers are Jewish), but his comments lend a certain poignancy to Chi-Raq. He’s long been taken to task for failing to render Black women with the same depth as his Black male characters, particularly by bell hooks. Three decades into his filmmaking career, not only does he still refuse to consider women outside the realm of sex, he’s premised an entire film on their existence there. To quote Tillet’s mic-drop line, in an era of rapidly increased political visibility of women of color, “The idea that sexuality remains black women’s primary political weapon is, in and of itself, a bit of a joke.”
The reviews have rolled in for Chi-Raq, and, as if rebuking the rush to prejudge the film, they’ve been pretty overwhelmingly positive. None of the (mostly white) critics sustain any illusion that the film is without its major flaws, but a familiar theme prevails: like the very best Spike Lee joints, this one is lively, livid and overflowing with ideas. To some extent this is entirely accurate. Chi-Raq is sometimes very funny, often obnoxious and never boring. But it’s also, in a way, completely false. In embarking on a high-stakes, comedic intervention into an utterly tragic situation, Lee ultimately shows a failure of imagination.