After months of controversy, Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq finally hits theaters today. It's a dud. A squandered opportunity. There’s a reckoning to be had in Chicago, and a serious examination to be done about the pervasiveness of gun violence here, but this movie is not it. Billed as a satire and based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Chi-Raq is a brazenly opportunistic film, glomming onto current events with sickening desperation, simultaneously overwrought and underwhelming.
The plot summary in brief: After a series of escalating violent acts between two rival gangs—the Spartans and the Trojans—result in the shooting of a little girl, a young woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), girlfriend of Spartan gang leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), initiates a sex strike in the hopes that it will curb the city’s violence. In the film, Lysistrata's strike is marked with a motto: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance,"which she repeats to her legion of women. The film's posters, however, put it more succinctly: "No Peace, No Piece."
Chi-Raq is both a satire and late period Spike Lee and, ultimately, a mess. There are glimpses of that signature Lee stamp—direct camera addresses, gorgeous cinematography (Wicker Park has never looked so good), and moving performances from Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and (surprisingly!) John Cusack. But there is so much more that doesn't work, from the haphazardly enforced rhyming verse throughout to the jarring nods at every hot button black subject du jour (mass incarceration! Sandra Bland! The Prison-Industrial Complex!). It's a well-known fact—one trumpeted by Lee himself—that the film was shot in six weeks and Lee scrambled to release it in time for Oscar consideration. The rushing shows.
It’s hard not to come away from the movie feeling as though it’s a gross oversimplification of Chicago’s ails. Both Lee and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, who originally came up with the concept of a modern revamping of Lysistrata, freely admit that the film was not originally supposed to be set in Chicago. That changed because of social media (read more about that here).
In Chicago’s Q&A with Lee, he claims to have done his research. And sure, he frontloads the movie with grim stats about the violence in the city. The 500 murders in 2012, the contested claim that there have been more murders in Chicago than in Iraq. But from then on, the depictions of gang culture appear to stem directly from bad, outdated movies and TV shows about gang life. They resemble nothing of the overwhelmingly young, decentralized nature of the gangs that proliferate in Chicago today. The fact that the film’s two central gang leaders (itself a dated concept in Chicago, when there are hundreds of splintered gangs who rule over one block or one street) are played by Nick Cannon, age 35, and Wesley Snipes, age 53, is just wildly inaccurate. (Let's ignore, forever, the utter absurdity of Snipes's Cyclops, from his bizarre, staccato laugh, to his bejeweled eye patch, to any character context whatsoever.) As Chicago has reported, the average age of both victims and perpetrators in Chicago is really young—a shocking number are under the age of 30.
What’s been so surprising—if not infuriating— about early critical reactions to the film is just how laudatory so many reviews have been. The cream of that strange crop: New York Times film critic Mahnola Dargis’s critic’s pick review. She not only calls Chi-Raq the best work Lee has done in years, but writes this travesty promptly circulated around local Internet circles and rightly mocked: “Set in contemporary Chicago, where sidewalks are washed with blood, and human hearts beat to the rhythm of gunfire…” Why is there such reticence on the part of critics to really address the film's awfulness? As if taking on Chicago gun violence means Lee should be offered a carte blanche. The tropes the film traffics in means it could have been set anywhere. That Lee chose Chicago seems like a desperate attempt on his part to cash in on the city's unflattering national spotlight.
Lee says he wants this movie to save lives. But if it has no basis in the reality of the city, how can it?