The film opens with statistics and facts of gun violence in the city of Chicago. Then we are played a song which the lyrics are written on the screen for us — in case we don’t understand — about the city of Chi-Raq. We are primed to have ourselves illuminated as Spike Lee sets the scene for a lyrically scripted farce as to the depths his world has sunk to. The problem with that, just like that wonderful sex that his protagonists withholds, when it doesn’t quite hit that spot after being promised something gargantuan in scale, we sit there wondering why we didn’t just get a documentary instead laying out all the facts clearly.
Movies, sadly, are entertainment. Even in prestige filled films that are laden with social commentary and most times too depressing to be described as “entertaining” they still manage to engage us in ways that never has us scratching on the doors of the theatre asking be freed as if we were the slaves in our seats. So no matter how important the message at hand is that the filmmaker wants us to understand, it’s his obligation to make sure that we are engaged by that message. Spike Lee, somewhere along the line forgot this concept a while back I believe.
In the 90s he hit the scene with films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever where he created a setting for where his own critiques of his social setting were entrenched in interesting dramas. They were filled with characters that made us want to care about the problems they faced, whether it was the police using excessive force on a friend from the block , or the fact that everyone decides to judge this one man for being involved with a woman because their of differing races. He gave us settings and characters that mattered before trying to make us care about the issues.
With Chi-Raq however it feels as though Lee put the cart before the donkey and not the right way around. We’re introduced to this world in a tightly packed club where Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is a rapper that talks about killing people and the two warring factions of the city, the Spartans and the Trojans. There is an incident and people are shot. Later that evening another attempt is made on his life while he’s with his lover, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and he shows no emotion other than annoyance as his love-making is disturbed through this incident. This is the inciting moment that leads our heroine on her journey to begin a sex strike — there are a few extra steps to get there, but let’s make it simple for now.
With the lyrical style of the film’s dialogue it throws in some musical style motion with every more ridiculous decision as characters externalize all of their thoughts as if they are all on a stage giving an inspiration speech and need you to pay more attention to their words. You watch on as these women recite an oath to refuse all sexual propositions while at the same time slowly moving in a manner that one may consider titular. The film makes us see the gangsters as nothing more than boys playing with toy guns, and when we eventually hit the climax when this movement has expanded far beyond it’s initial intended reach the film finishes in such a ridiculous fashion that one has nothing more to say but sigh.
Films are not meant to be real, I can’t harm a film for being fantastical. I tend to love them being more and more fantastical than the one that came before, but this movie fails to keep us interested as it loses all footing in the first few minutes as we have nothing to ground us. Neither Chi-Raq, Lysistrata, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) the rival gang leader, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) the Mother Sister stand-in, nor even the more ridiculous Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) the narrator and Mr. Love Daddy sound-a-like can help ease us into this world. It just never works.
Scene after scene the film attempts to bring us more information on how everything is turned against these people. From a moment where we watch on as the priest, played by John Cusack, gives a sermon about the life-span of a gun and how the community is marketed it, to another moment where an upright man of the community wants to rally his other non-violent non-gang friends to ask “why do we need to suffer?”; the problem with all of it is that it feels like grandstanding. We sit there and are shouted these opinions, which are pretty well seen and interpretations of the system of the real world, but it falls on deaf ears. The film never feels like it’s feeding you new information. After the first few moments of the movie everything feels like repetition meant for those in the audience who either fell asleep or didn’t hear the first time. However, for myself who was listening it just creates another reason to be angry with this movie.
And don’t worry, I’ve decided to leave out some of the more ridiculous things about how this movie escalates it’s own plot. I appreciate all the ideas the Lee wants to bring forward with his films a lot of the time. I just wish he took the time to craft a story and characters that made me want to listen like he used to.