Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: Chi-Raq

by Adam Riske
I am dumbfounded by how little I appreciated Chi-Raq.

Chi-Raq is a king’s folly. It’s the work of a great filmmaker who has completely lost his way. I am appalled by the fact that Spike Lee took an urgent and heartbreaking issue like gun violence in Chicago and turned it into essentially a sex farce. Dialogue about important topics are trumped by how many synonyms the filmmakers can come up with for penis, vagina or sex. Was Spike Lee trying to aim for high satire like Stanley Kubrick did in Dr. Strangelove? Or parody like Lee’s own powerful but problematic Bamboozled? Whatever the case, the message was lost on me in Chi-Raq despite the intermittent inclusion of some brilliant scenes, including an impassioned church sermon and a confrontation between a victimized mother and an insurance salesman. The issue is that each great scene is surrounded by a half dozen aggressively bad ones.
I am a big fan of Spike Lee. I love Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Jungle Fever and many more in his important catalog as a filmmaker. I hope that goes to show you, the reader, how much Chi-Raq broke my heart as an admirer of the director. Chi-Raq is borderline racist, too, boiling down white people to buffoons and black people mostly to individuals governed by their guns or their genitals. As a white person, I was offended. If I were a black man, I would be outraged. Lee’s thesis in the movie is also hambone and naïve to the point where I don’t even feel like he got to know anything about Chicago gang members before making this movie. I could be wrong, but they have the depth of a puddle in Chi-Raq. The depiction of the victims’ families and the community is what works in the movie, but it’s not enough to wipe the bad taste out of my mouth about the whole film. This is the angriest I’ve been at a movie all year.

The plot in brief: Chi-Raq is a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago. After the murder of a child by a stray bullet, a group of women organize against gun violence on Chicago’s Southside by creating a movement that posits that if they deny their men sex until there’s peace in the streets that it will enact change for the better in their community and around the world.
To show that I’m not an idiot, I get what the goal of the play Lysistrata is. It’s a comedy about one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers as a means to force their men to negotiate peace, a strategy that inflames the battle of the sexes. But Spike Lee shouldn’t do that under the backdrop of gun violence in my opinion. He’s doing the exact thing that he accused Quentin Tarantino of doing in Django Unchained, which is trivializing an important epidemic (in Django, slavery and in Chi-Raq, gun violence) and making it a piece of entertainment. Gun violence is more personal than war (especially nuclear warfare as portrayed in Dr. Strangelove) and you can’t have a movie that pokes fun at the issue while still including scenes of a mother wiping away the blood of their shot child off a sidewalk. In short, the idea to use Lysistrata as an inspiration for this movie (including a bizarre master of ceremonies played by Samuel L. Jackson) is wrong-headed. Again, this is my opinion. You may feel differently and Lee is entitled to make any film he wants.

Spike Lee strands his actors into playing cartoons at worst and fighting against the stylization of the material (most of the movie is told in rhyme). Faring best is John Cusack, who is the center of the film’s best scene in a church, and Angela Bassett, who is effortlessly good as a grieving mother. Among the rest of the cast, Jennifer Hudson is given the job of crying in almost every scene and little else and Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes are playing characters of very little dimension or feeling. Maybe that’s the point, but that just strikes me as Lee being uninterested in delving deeper into these troubled individuals than anything else. The lead performance by Teyonah Parris is strong but she’s at the center of the film’s problems for the most part. Lee lets her down. It’s no fault of Parris’ performance. I also want to mention that the movie’s prologue and soundtrack are strong just to show I’m not completely hard-hearted in my assessment of this movie.
Chi-Raq is such a missed opportunity. That is what breaks my heart. Just as he did with race and interpersonal relationships in the past, Lee could have made a heartfelt and angry film about gun violence in Chicago but instead he turned it into a big joke with a limp dick punchline. If this were a movie about New York (like Do the Right Thing or 25th Hour), I doubt he would have taken the topic so lightly. From an insider to an outsider, Chicagoans (and serious filmgoers) deserve a better movie about the city of Chicago than Chi-Raq.

18 comments:

  1. Oof. That all sounds very disappointing. If it's how you say, that's so embarrassing for everyone it was meant to portray and help. I only know about gun violence in Chicago from a This American Life episode they did on Harper High School, which I revisit often. At least I know there are many incredible stories to tell-heartbreaking and uplifting. It seems bizarre that Spike Lee was so off.

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    1. It has an 84% RT rating from Top Critics. Most critics are saying it's extremely good.

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    2. I disagree with them in this case. I'm not trying to be contrarian but I had a different opinion which I expressed in the review. Baltasar, have you seen the movie?

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  3. 84% from the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

    It appears this review is a bit of an anomaly from the general consensus of critics.

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    1. Movies are subjective. It's not a box score of a baseball game.

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    2. You can't mathematically quantify something as subjective as the quality of a piece of art.

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  4. I'm curious what your opinion is of the ending sequence of Malcolm X, where the film turns into a lyrical essay, essentially.

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    1. I'm a big fan of everything in Malcolm X

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  5. I am too, I think it's an unheralded classic. I was on the fence about Chi-raq because the trailer looked like everything you illustrated in your review. Is it worth seeing in a theater even with these reservations? I live near the Macic Johnson theater in Harlem and hoped to get a good crowd.

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    1. I think it's a big mess. There are better movies to see out there right now like Spotlight and Creed imho.

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  6. Groovy. Thanks!

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  7. This is kinda sad to hear. In an era where everyone is hyperfocused on mass shootings where white people get shot, we could've used someone like Lee to remind us that everyday gun violence in some of these major cities is a bigger problem that affects way more people.

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  8. This is such a bummer because the main actress was so good in Mad Men, with the little she was given to do. Plus I remember reading the play in high school and it stuck with me. But I'm still glad Spike Lee is making movies he wants to make. I'd rather see something like this than a movie that causes a reaction such as "it was fine" and a shrug.

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    1. She was elegantly fantastic in Mad Men with very little written for her. If the show was truly revolutionary she and Don would have had a serious relationship. Aside from that I saw the film and I think I get what Spike was going for, a tragic farce, but it would actually work better as a theatrical production. The broadness and contrived dialogue just doesn't translate to film for me personally, but could work on a live stage.

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    2. That last comment was mine, didn't mean to be anonymous, sorry!

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  9. Sorry I'm so late to the game--the theaters apparently didn't feel like this movie deserved more than a week (unless I drove all the way to Chatham, which is not too far from where this movie takes place), so I finally caught up with it on Amazon Prime yesterday. I have to say, I'm also dumbfounded at how little you appreciated about the film.
    I felt like the issue wasn't portrayed as gun violence, à la Bowling for Columbine, but as an actual war. In the opening song, the lyrics go something like "I don't live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq" and then we see the casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before the murders in Chicago over the same time. Combined with the fact that they mention other cities in the U.S. (e.g. Killadelphia), this is a systemic, large scale problem--a war amongst neighbors. When you consider the fact, too, that these aren't faction-less or random murders, I think the movie isn't about the more personal issue of gun violence (though there are several scenes that work that way), but a broad systematic problem that has a variety of causes, which are primarily economic.
    I think that's why we saw the film so differently. For me, the movie felt really broad, despite focusing on only a small cast of characters. It takes place in Chicago, but it's not really about Chicago (why have women in Japan protesting when Japan has virtually outlawed all firearms?), but about why men--and yes, it's primarily men--go to war. Lack of access to economic opportunities, pride, etc. That's why the comedy bits worked for me, because a lot of it had to do with pride (I love the shot of the tank with "Penis Envy" scrawled on the barrel), and many men pride themselves on their johnson and their ability to access the honey biscuit. Is it farcical? Yes, I believe so, but it's also, in a more ancient way than we're used to, feminist.
    Sorry if that's a little disorganized. It is, after all, New Year's Day (Happy New Year!), but I hope you'll give it another shot.

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  10. I'm unsurprised that a lot of people are rubbed the wrong way by Chi-Raq. It's a total fucking mess, tonally and stylistically it's all over the place, but than again so is Guernica, A piece of art that explores many of the same themes as Chi-Raq. I think Spike made a film that is both broad and ridiculous, because the violence it is addressing is broad and ridiculous. Especially, in a time where our advances in science and technology, along with our knowledge of history and human biology and genetics should have quelled our thirst for violence by now. The movie is a farce. Not because it is taking its' subject matter lightly, but because the subject matter itself has reached a point of absurdity that is farcical.

    Whatever ones thinks about the subject matter and how it is handled in the film, it's hard to argue that it is not beautifully made. The cinematography and photography are stunning. I can't think another film that captures the fragmentation of Chicago's neighborhoods in a way that is both incredibly cinematic and emotionally honest. The editing creates an appropriate sense of urgency. The acting can be a little silly and over the top, but that feels right for a film that so obviously comes from a place of deep emotional distress.

    Regardless of how you feel about Chi-Raq, you will feel. It's hard to imagine anyone seeing the film and shrugging their shoulders, with a "Meh". That alone is reason enough to see the movie and I hope everyone gives it a chance.

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