Spike Lee is forever controversial. Sometimes he says dope, important things on gentrification like, “Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.” Sometimes he says dangerous, dumb things like, “I think a sex strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment or date rapes.” See? Forever controversial. Sometimes poignantly on point, sometimes too far gone. Chi-Raq is undoubtedly the latter.
New York City’s finest gathered at the Zeigfeld Theater to lay eyes on Lee’s latest creative offering. A Spike Lee joint brings out the old, the young, the rich, the poor and everything in between. The invite-only screening included the star-studded cast: Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, LaLa Anthony and Nick Cannon along with celeb friends there to support. Before the film started there was something like what Black church folks call Announcements. Lee gave personal shout-outs to all the celebs in the building. Rev. Al Sharpton made a speech on how this film was going to save lives although I imagine he’d never seen the film since he was at the screening like everybody else. A white man told the crowd they’d be marching to Times Sq. after the film in protest of anti-gun violence. Finally, there was a prayer led by Father Michael Pflegler. A bow your head so we can thank Lee for this god-awful movie type prayer. I’m sure the actual prayer was about combatting violence in our communities, but I was in such shock that we were bringing the Lord into a movie screening that I had to tweet through it.
One of my first concerns was the sheer number of white people in the theater who would undoubtedly take this film seriously. If I see one white writer waxing poetic about how Chi-Raq is a brilliant analysis of violence in Chicago I may shake the table. Based on the trailer I already had serious doubts and low expectations. But a foolish part of me had a tiny bit of hope that Lee would prove us all wrong, making the Twitter elite who rage against everything, eat their words. After all, this is the dude that gave us Malcolm X and School Daze and Bamboozled and my favorite movie of all-time, Crooklyn. But remembering the catastrophe that was 2012’s Red Hook Summer, I knew Chi-Raq would be bad. I’d hoped otherwise.
Chi-Raq is the story of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), convincing the women in Chicago to go on a sex strike until there’s a peace treaty between rivalry gangs. The wives, girlfriends and female affiliates of the Spartans and Trojan gangs are fed up of innocent children dying. They join forces to mastermind a plan to bring about peace. It all comes to a head when the ladies take over a national guard unarmed. Chi-Raq (Cannon) is the leader of the Spartans gang with ambitions of blowing up as a superstar rapper. He has no interest in “elevating his mind” for peace. Now I don’t know on what planet we’re supposed to be convinced that Cannon is a gang banger or good rapper, but here on planet Earth I assure you we’re not. Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) is head of the Trojans who’s always down for the shoot ’em up, bang bang life so he also has zero interest in 86’ing beefs with enemies. Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) is the narrator who moves the story along in rhyme. With his pimp cane and colorful suits he’s one of the few bright spots in this otherwise dreadful satire. Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) is the neighborhood pastor — the only one with some real sense who gives long dialogs about the NRA, the corrupt government, race and poverty. Turns out he’s as crooked as everybody else. There’s other appearances from Dave Chapelle, Angela Bassett, LaLa, Jennifer Hudson and Harry Lennix, but not even the star-studded cast could save Lee’s attempt at turning a greek comedy into anything worth watching.
As a comedy it fails. As a hot take on “black-on-black crime” it fails. As a version of Lysistrata it fails. As a film it fails. Chi-Raq is one long hotep sermon on how intraracial crime is our real problem. How black folks are doing white supremacy’s work by killing each other. How cops won’t respect us if we don’t respect ourselves. And how the real power that women have is in our vaginas because if we just withhold sex all would be right in the world. It’s full-on hotep, straight from the pages of the Third Eye Woke section of Twitter.
I get it. It’s satire. But Lee wants us to take it seriously, which is why he led a march after the film. It’s why in every recent interview he hit us with the “but what about ‘black-on-black’ crime” detraction. It’s why he’s repeatedly said this film will save lives. How am I supposed to take this seriously when Lee uses the original names from Lysistrata for his main characters and gangs? I’m pretty sure Chicago is short on brothers named Cyclopes or Dolmedes. I’m not well-versed on Chicago gangs, but I’m pretty sure there’s no Spartans and Trojans riding through the streets throwing up their sets.
Then there’s Lee’s problem with women. He has always had a problem creating female characters. Always. In Chi-Raq the women are nothing more than their vaginas. “No peace, no pussy!” they chant. The only power they have is between their thighs. Women only exist for the pleasure and control of men. Guess what, though? Women enjoy sex. We love it! Why should women have to deprive ourselves of sexual fulfillment to cajole grown ass men? Not to mention the idea of black women withholding sex completely ignores the real life violence black women face at the hands of black men. So while the women are withholding sex to end gang-related violence, who is fighting for violence and sexual assault against black women? Yeah. It’s quiet on that front.
The women of Chi-Raq have no identities of their own. No aspirations or goals. No jobs. No wants or needs. Literally all we see them doing is existing for men and to service men. They’re the ride or dies who foolishly believe their vaginas can end a war. Sure Lysistrata had the same premise of using a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. But a closer look at the play shows that the women had concerns about gender-based issues. The major difference is the women in Lysistrata detested how men saw them as only sexual objects and how their opinions went unheard. They wanted more than just the war to end, they wanted to be treated with respect. Chi-Raq’s women never suggest they have their own demands or desires.
I’m not sure why men don’t find this offensive too. The idea that women can control men’s actions through their vaginas implies men are nothing but mindless animals controlled by their penises.
The oversimplification of the causes of violence in Chicago is another blind spot for Lee. There are moments of speaking truth to power like when Miss Hellen (Angela Bassett) speaks on the comparison in how America responds to white Sandy Hook victims vs. countless black children who are victims of violence every day. There’s also Father Corridan who delivers a sermon that mentions how our kids are on the school-to-prison pipeline. Those moments are awesome but they don’t tell anyone who reads books anything we don’t already know. Those moments are overshadowed by the pervasive message that “black-on-black crime” is a symptom of ego. It does very little handling of the real causes of violence like poverty, discriminating housing practices, criminalization of black boys and girls, mass incarceration and several other issues that date back to Jim Crow. After the Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin shoutouts we’re back to the “but what about ‘black-on-black’ crime” message.
Let’s say I could toss aside my feminist gaze and critic’s lens to just enjoy the film as pure entertainment. It still sucks. For God’s sake the entire movie is in rhyme. As in you have to sit through a musical of sorts listening to characters rhyme what’s supposed to be serious dialogue on violence. What was funny to others was corny to me. You know when somebody says something at a stuffy panel or at the work happy-hour that isn’t really funny but because it’s supposed to be funny and you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings so people just laugh anyway? That’s what the comedy throughout the film is like. I genuinely laughed maybe twice. You know who didn’t laugh not once? Al Sharpton. I know because I sat right behind him.
I won’t even get into Cannon’s lyrics that sound like nothing you’d hear in a real rap song. I won’t even touch on how Lee’s interpretation of the hood in Chicago is people smoking blunts, sexing after cleaning their guns, pouring lean and thinking about gang banging under graffiti painted bridges all day. Literally the people in Chi-Raq did nothing else. Except Miss Hellen who didn’t own a TV because she read books instead. She’s the enlightened one. I won’t even touch on how his comparison of the Iraq War casualties vs. Chicago homicides is factually bankrupt. I won’t even touch on how the opening song after Cannon’s is R. Kelly. Yes, the I rape and molest children R. Kelly. I won’t even go into the soundtrack being about as uninspiring as the film. I won’t even go into how dangerous the message of the film is for Black girls and women.
I’ve not hated a film with this much ire since Django Unchained. I left the theater with a headache. To see such a talented group of actors handed such a shitty script annoyed the hell out of me. Teyonah Parris is amazing. Angela Bassett’s name speaks for itself as does Samuel L. Jackson and Wesley Snipes. But actors can only deliver on what they’re given. There was no character development. No real storyline that connected any of the characters in any meaningful way other than Chicago violence.
I didn’t leave the theater feeling hopeful about violence. I didn’t leave the theater feeling connected to any of the characters. I didn’t feel like Lee told the truth to shame the devil in terms of black folks plight in America. I don’t feel like Lee gave us nuanced, authentic representation. I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I’d at least had a good laugh. If art is supposed to make you feel, all it made me feel was annoyed about the two hours of my life I’ll never get back.
I don’t know what’s happened to Spike Lee. Not only is he drunk on the Kool-Aid, he’s fooled these actors into actually believing they’re doing some type of humanitarian deed with this film. They are convinced there’s a greater message. The irony is that Chi-Raq is not much different than the very Tyler Perry films Lee detests. He thinks his bourgeoisie Fort Greene upbringing and Morehouse degree separates him from the ridiculousness of Perry’s Madea. But the difference between the two is barely detectable. Like much of Perry’s work, Chi-Raq is preachy. It lacks the grace of subtlety because he underestimates the intelligence of his audience.
Lee has churned out some damn good classics. I will never take that from him. But I couldn’t stomach this. It not only exploited Chicago on the backs of black women, it’s just an incredibly bad film.
If you want to waste your money, be my guest. Just don’t go thinking you’re about to get anything of substance. This doesn’t represent Chicago. At best you’ll at least have something to discuss with the incense lighting, “Feminism is ruining the black man” spouting, Black Queen Earth Woman hoteps in your life. But if your life is ash and hotep free, catch it on bootleg.
* I use quotes for “black-on-black” crime every single time because it’s a fallacy created by white supremacy and upheld by racist media. Majority of crime is intraracial. In other words, people kill who they live in close proximity to. White people kill mostly whites. FBI statistics are your friend. Google.