Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, has been at the center of controversy from the first moment the public was made aware of its title and premise up to the critically well received film’s opening this past weekend. The modern-day take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which all of Chicago’s women take a vow of celibacy in hopes of bringing the city peace, is meant to be satire. In reality, it’s more of a half-serious look at a vitally serious issue: gun violence in Chicago. And that’s part of the problem with the film.
As a proud product of Chicago’s South Side, where Chi-Raq is based, I can attest that the concern is much more than just a city being forced to look at its own reflection. People are worried that, by taking a satirical approach, Lee may have missed the opportunity to provide genuine, constructive criticism and realistic solutions. Even fifth graders, the same children Lee claims he’s trying to help, came out with op-eds to express their frustrations at potentially being misrepresented.
Understandably, those loyal to Lee had faith in his abilities. He has an established legacy of taking issues that primarily affect the black community and serving them up in a way that may be hard to swallow at first, but which still resonate. One could argue that he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. However, once the trailer dropped this past November, that way of thinking became harder to sustain for some, myself included.
An initial worry of mine, and others, was that Lee was just another outsider pointing a finger at Chicago’s problems. Ironically enough, the same rappers that helped promote the “Chi-raq” image through their music criticized the trailer for a lack of authenticity. Chief Keef, the arguable poster child of Chicago’s drill music scene, tweeted, “Damn Spikey….. Chiraq isn’t defined enough on that movie! It should be showing what’s really going on.” Others felt that satire shouldn’t have even been the chosen method of telling this story, such as longtime WGN film critic and Chicago local, Dean Richards, who said the film didn’t add anything new to the conversation surrounding Chicago’s violence.
Chance the Rapper, Chicago Magazine’s Chicagoan of the Year and all-around lauded son of the Second City, is the latest name on the growing list of locals, including Rhymefest, upset by the film and its perceived message. It’s not clear whether or not he’s seen it yet, or ever plans to, but, in a recent series of tweets, the rapper proclaimed he’s the “one from Chicago” to announce the local lack of support. While this may not be completely accurate – Rhymefest’s criticism even predates the release – it’s still a powerful statement.
If hearing from local rappers and film critics isn’t enough to make it clear that this film was an issue for many Chicagoans, try asking parents that have lost children here. “I just think [the film is] going to glorify the killing,” Delphine Cherry told The Guardian this summer. “They don’t care about the killings or our kids. They get glory about watching the pain of the parents.”
I was personally concerned that Lee was simply exploiting Chicago’s pain and suffering to make a film that could’ve honestly taken place in a long list of other cities suffering from similar issues. Angela Bassett’s character in Chi-Raq even names a few, such as Philadelphia or Baltimore. Lee titling the film after Chicago’s controversial, morbid nickname was enough to support that concern.
Just in case you were unaware, the term “Chi-Raq” is one that many Chicagoans of all ages despise and condemn because of how it hones in on a negative aspect and ignores all of the positive. This article is my first time even referring to the movie by its true title instead of just calling it “the new Spike Lee movie.” And I still can’t let the word actually leave my own mouth and cringe whenever I see or hear it. It’s hard to view Lee’s title choice as anything more than a way to fill movie theater seats and bump up Amazon streaming numbers. It seems like a film version of clickbait – a cheap attempt to get more eyes on the screen. The fact that Lee told Windy City Live that he only chose to center the film on Chicago after it failed to get financing in years before doesn’t help his case.
According to The Kansas City Star, Kevin Wilmott, who co-wrote the film with Lee, came up with the concept of a modern-day Lysistrata 13 years ago. He approached Lee, who liked the script, and the two hit the major-studio circuit to read what was then called Gotta Give It Up! in hopes of getting funding. (DreamWorks was apparently even considering casting Jennifer Lopez as the lead at one point.) But it wasn’t until just over a year ago that Lee called Wilmott and recommended that they title it Chi-Raq and base it in Chicago.
While Chicago may have reeked of opportunity for Lee to finally stage his fictional story, though, Chicago’s problem with gun violence is real. No one needed to be reminded of that. I’m aware of it every time I turn on the news. I was made even more aware of it when I was woken up on back-to-back nights this past summer by police officers at my front door standing in front of red tape because two people had been shot – one by a cop, the other by a civilian.
Even if Chi-Raq didn’t offer a cure, which is an admittedly difficult task, there were hopes that it would at least shed more light on the issues it raises. Chicago’s gun violence is something that affects hundreds and thousands of people, either directly or by association. But it primarily affects the city’s black youth. Instead of a film that focuses on them or tells their story, we get a comical gang war between Nick Cannon and an eyepatch-wearing Wesley Snipes, both of whom are old enough to be fathers of those in the center of the problem. And the solution the film supplies, which includes magically wiping away the high unemployment of a famous poor community, strays too far into fantasy.
Lee’s been standing behind the defense that the film is satire and not comedy; it’s neither. It tries to be humorous at times, but misses the mark far too often to be considered a comedy. It doesn’t engage enough with the issues to be called satire. And it can’t be taken seriously enough to be considered a drama. For example, the first thing we get is a singalong to Nick Cannon rapping about how hard core and real he is. Oh, and side note, his character is actually named Chi-Raq, as Lee doubles down on the use of the moniker.
Contrary to many people’s complaints, it’s not necessarily a problem of Lee not being from Chicago. A person doesn’t always have to be from a place to tell its story well. But, if they aren’t, there’s a certain amount of sensitivity that has to be taken and a level of depth that has to be reached, neither of which Lee achieves. Nothing about the film stands out as Chicago-specific apart from some landmarks, a couple familiar faces (such as Vic Mensa and Young Chop), and some B-roll of the Green and Blue line trains.
Finally, there’s the way the film places the responsibility to end the violence in Chicago in the literal and metaphorical laps of its women. Sure, the idea may have come from a play written more than 2400 years ago but here it comes off as a tongue-in-cheek way of objectifying women and implying that they’re somehow the cause of the issue or not doing enough to stop it. Chi-Raq also misses the mark with that initial concept altogether when it shows that women from all over the world have joined those in Chicago in solidarity… I think. It’s never actually clear what they’re all fighting for. World peace? Peace in Chicago? Gender equality? No one really knows. They’re just all over the world news repeating some variation of the same “no peace, no p*ssy” chant.
Contrary to my own complaints, filmgoers and critics outside of Chicago appear to be responding with generally positive reviews. It’s even being called Lee’s best work in over a decade. But that’s being balanced out by multiple people, including the artist credited with coining the term “Chi-Raq” and local politicians, expressing their disapproval. There’s a legitimate chance that people on either side of the issue could be on the wrong side of history when we look back on this years from now, just like many in 1989 missed the point of Do The Right Thing by seeing it as an inflammatory film with the potential to make black people riot across the country. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. And it looks like a lot of other people are too. While many just see Chi-Raq as Spike Lee doing what Spike Lee does, I see another mistreatment of a situation that’s been mistreated enough.