I am sitting here trying to put into words how simply awful is Spike Lee’s new comedic satire “joint” Chi-Raq. So if my points come off as glib I humbly apologize. I would be remised if I actually called Mr. Lee’s new film a joint because that would be way too generous and far too sympathetic. Chi-Raq reminds me of my failed and embarrassing attempt as a young kid to pass off oregano as ganja simply because I wanted to look cool in front of a throng of girls and then embarrassingly gaging after a few puffs to the delight of my buddies. And like all embarrassing moments in childhood I am still trying to live that moment down.
We all know that Mr. Lee has had a hit or miss career when it comes to making films. His Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, Inside Man, and Clockers, were masterpieces. But he has also failed miserably at times racking up a list of decidedly atrocious films: Girl 6, School Daze, Drop Squad, Bamboozled, and Get on the Bus, just to name a few. But his latest outing Chi-Raq, and I want to be frank here has got to be his worst and possibly one of the worst films I have ever seen in my life. Now to say that something should be called as one of the worst or best of anything borderlines on arrogance. Certainly Mr. Lee could accuse me of not knowing much about filmmaking and compared to a Martin Scorsese he probably would have a valid point. But I, like many of my readers have spent a lifetime watching and studying films and have learned a thing or two about what it takes to really make a great film. And Brothers and Sisters, this ain’t one of them.
Great films are not just works that have good subject matter and subject matter he has. Mr. Lee leaned on the history of Greek comedy and the current American urban violence to construct this narrative so he’s safe on this score. The film is based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek comedy play in which Greek women withhold physical affection from their husbands as punishment for fighting in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). Mr. Lee has never been want of good subject matter. He has, in previous films, relied heavily on things that matter to the black community: civil rights, race, gentrification, inter-racial and black on black love, color dynamics, and the exploitation of black athletes. His latest subject: Chicago and American inner city violence is indeed a worthy for our times. But filmmaking is more than just having great subject matter. Great filmmakers are masters of technique. They understand how their films look, sound and are meant to feel to their audience, something I thought he clearly nailed in Do the Right Thing. Great filmmakers learn that filmmaking involves the nitty gritty grind of good writing, lighting, cinematography, proper casting, set and costume design, and sound. All of these technical aspects must be brought to bear to enliven a Directors vision of an idea that is expressed through the media of film. In this case Chi-Raq is a masterful mess, a cataclysmic failure of epic proportions. You know the film lacks technical acumen when one person rolls out of one scene headed in one direction and then miraculously appears in the next scene. This shows a clear lack of attention to detail. In one scene he shows women in Tokyo joining the fight to withhold sex. But Mr. Lee never explains why women in Tokyo need to join the fight to end urban gang violence. There were so many moments in the film when I simply screamed bullsh**t that my fellow film goers began to think I was a Spanish Torero.
If you weren’t familiar with Lysistrata or Chicago’s spate of gang troubles the film is set in the inner core of Chicago, Illinois, one of the most troubled spots (Englewood) for violence, particularly black on black violence. Chi-Raq’s female sexual prohibition occurs after a black child is caught in the cross fire of two rival gangs: the Spartans and Trojans (Yes, you heard it: Spartans and Trojans—never should one accuse Mr. Lee of a lack of imagination). And there you have it. Naturally Mr. Lee then attempts to showcase how the holding back of sex, could in some way, highlight the power that modern day brown and black women have if only they were able to harness this power and realize group solidarity. Now you might be asking why is this a bad thing? It’s actually not. This is not a new idea and theoretically it has merit: the sexual occupation of female bodies by men. The problem is how Mr. Lee uses 118 minutes to unfold the nexus of this centuries old male-female dilemma.
Adapting Lysistrata to modern times requires skillful subtlety and a complete grasp of the stakes involved by the victims of crime, the perpetrators and all those that suffer from the loss of loved ones. The Greeks got it because the Peloponnesian War was the defining moment in Greek history, reducing Athens to complete subjugation and Sparta to unbridled domination of the Greek Diaspora. The original Greek play was neither meant to be in support of female power nor a call for pacifism but a call for an honorable end to the war. What honor can come from ending gang violence and the killing of innocent children? Comedic satire of any subject only works if one has an idea what is satire. I am not sure Mr. Lee has learned this over his career–Bamboozled comes to mind. There is a fine line between satire and propaganda, and even finer line between purposely comedic satire. Great filmmakers are masters of subtle propaganda even when they intend to smash us out of our seats. Mr. Lee should watch or re-watch Dr. Strangelove, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Chaplin’s Modern Times. In film as in life timing is everything, particularly in comedy.
Another area of the film that is completely distracting is that the film script is written in singsong; yes nearly the entire film actors rhyme their lines. Yes, rhyme! For such a meaningful subject this fails to do anything but trivialize the subject matter, but I did say earlier this was a comedic satire didn’t I? Perhaps this was meant to be appealing to younger audiences? One can only wonder. The film features some old Lee actors: Samuel Jackson plays Dolmedes (Dolomite rip-off) who moves in and out of the film adding narration to drive the picture from one major scene to the next. Dave Chappelle makes a cameo appearance and John Cusack plays Fr. Mike Corrida giving the film a dimension of faux diversity. Wesley Snipes plays Cyclops, a one-eyed rival gang-banger to Nic Cannon’s role as Chi-Raq. Snipes is not funny and just is simply miss-cast in this role. Cannon is credible but lacks the material necessary to allow his talent as an actor to really shine. Angela Bassett suffers that same fate as Miss Helen who champions the power of books. Ms. Bassett is poorly used and not fitting with her remarkable skills as an actor.
Now I know that many people will like the film but that is what film criticism is all about, diversity of opinion. It’s clear that early reviews of the film are mixed and tend to see the film as some type of artistic display and demonstrative of Mr. Lee’s late period work. But lets be honest with ourselves: in light of the police murders, the incessant gang violence, loss of life and the anguish that black mothers and sisters live with as their men die needlessly the movie is simply stupid. But if there is one thing positive to take away from the film: is that a ton of black actors had work.