I give it 3 out of 4 stars.
First, name me another narrative film that’s even attempting to address gun violence in Chicago. Is there one? Is there another feature film giving voice to Fr. Pfleger, Purpose Over Pain and other members of the community, many of whom are seen in the film? This may not be the best film ever but, hell, give Spike mad props for even addressing the topic and attempting to do it through a satirical lens. Like they say in gymnastics, that’s a “high degree of difficulty.”
Like I said before, I’m a big Spike Lee fan. I love too many of his movies to list here. So many incredible cinematic moments - The closing scene from “He Got Game,” where Denzel plays his son in a game of one-on-one basketball while Aaron Copland plays, Edward Norton’s monologue about New York in “25th Hour,” the closing shot of Mekhi Phifer on the train in “Clockers,” the closing shot of “School Daze,” the list goes on and on. I’ve always thought his work is so unique and so enjoyable. He’s like a mix of Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, stylized yet grounded. In my opinion, he’d garner way more industry attention and respect if he was white. (But that's a whole other conversation to be continued.) So I walked in to see “Chi-Raq” through that lens…
The positives – The performances. Who knew that I’d like Nick Cannon?? He was great in this film. Wonderful performance with a well-articulated arc. Teyonah Parris is fantastic as Lysistrata. I saw her struggle in her eyes. I was impressed by John Cusack’s portrayal of the Fr Pfleger-inspired character. He’s really tapped in. But the highlight for me were THE REAL COMMUNITY MEMBERS…anytime real mothers are shown holding photos of their children, that’s when I got the most emotional. That shit…man. Or the character in the wheelchair who’s clearly a real member of the community. I also loved the choreography – Spike’s stylized world is fun to watch. He’s so original in his presentation, always has been. The minute the film starts, you know you’re watching a Spike Lee film. And strong female characters – his female characters have improved over the years and women are at the center of this story.
The negatives – I can see why people could be upset. If you view this film from the wrong angle, take it on a surface level, yes, it turns the African-American population into highly sexual and highly violent. But I personally believe that’s a reflection of the American culture in general. I think there are three main problems with the film:
1) This is a script that Spike and co-writer Kevin Willmott have been working on for over six years. When the recent spate of shootings occurred, they decided to update the script to take place in Chicago. That’s why the script feels a bit generic (which is one of the main criticisms from its detractors). It definitely feels like a bit of a “lesson” film where the audience is hit over the head about what’s happening in Chicago but I feel like it’s a subject matter with which we need to be hit.
2) Source material – I have a problem with modern adaptations of ancient Greek texts. I think writing as an art form has changed way too much since 411 BC, when Aristophanes wrote the original “Lysistrata.” Nowadays, most plays and films include deep character development and when a writer starts with something as old as Aristophanes, I think they’re painting themself into a corner that’s plot driven, not character driven. The movie becomes about a series of events, some of which don’t make sense, some of which you don’t really care about because you don’t know enough about the characters or their relationships.
3) I LOVE the fact that he attempted to address gun violence in Chicago (and America) through a satirical lens but, let’s face it, some of it just wasn’t funny. Some of it felt a bit awkward, like some jokes in the script had not been tested out before they were delivered for the camera. That’s why comics test out their jokes over and over again in front of an audience, paying attention to every single syllable of every single word.
Again, a high degree of difficulty. It’s definitely worth seeing and we SHOULD be debating it, in fact, we’re not debating this film enough. I was disappointed that so many people wrote it off so quickly (including me). I’m upset that it took me so many weeks to see it. But I bought into the criticism, including that of Chicago-based rapper Rhymefest who criticized the film after seeing only the trailer. C’mon, seriously? Oh, and he read an early draft of the script? I hate when people criticize art without ever seeing it.
Yes, I understand that people want to see a serious film be made about this topic. I agree. In some ways, it’s unfortunate that “Straight Outta Compton” came out the same year. I feel like people want to see that type of film made about the current situation in Chicago. And if I may make a slight comparison, although I think “Straight Outta Compton” is the better film, it doesn’t come close to the number of strong female protagonists in “Chi-Raq.”
Spike Lee has always made “event” movies, movies worth debating and discussing. Kudos to him for continuing to create art that addresses topics important to the Black community and, therefore, to America at large.