- Written by
- Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott
- Directed by
- Spike Lee
- Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon and Samuel L. Jackson
I was in Boston in the middle of February when I picked up a Blu-ray off of a store shelf. It took me a minute to register: here was Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, a film that still hadn't hit Canadian cinemas, ready to take home and enjoy at my convenience. Now, 3 1/2 months after Americans have seen and maybe already forgotten it, Chi-Raq will make its Canadian debut this Friday.
Chi-Raq – a slang term used by some residents of Chicago's south side to refer to the city's war-zone-like gun violence – is a modern retelling of Aristophanes's 411 BC play Lysistrata. The film stars the talented Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, and the somewhat less adept Nick Cannon as Chi, her gun-slinging, purple drank-sipping, aspiring rapper boyfriend. Sung and spoken in lyrical verse like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, the movie casts a host of community and gang members played by Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson and, oddly, John Cusack.
Chi-Raq saw its U.S. theatrical release in the first week of December as Lee rushed to have it qualify for the Academy Awards, to no avail – the movie and its (mostly) stellar black cast got zero nominations, adding to the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. The film's uneven reception may have something to do with the fact that Chi-Raq is the first film to be released from Amazon Studios' newly minted movie division, which, along with Netflix, seems to be rewriting the rules of distribution. One perk of working with Amazon Studios is that money appears to be no object. There is a glossy pomp to Chi-Raq that commands attention as the film lays out the life-and-death stakes of gang violence. And yet, new money can't (and in this instance, doesn't quite) buy substance.
It's hard to say why exactly it has taken so long for Chi-Raq to make its way to Canadian audiences: Are we shy about the new frontier of Web-based distribution? Do we simply lack the audiences to make it worthwhile for American companies to care? Does Jeff Bezos not like us? Maybe we just can't have nice things?
For better or for worse, Chi-Raq is here now. Following Lysistrata, the women of Lee's film go on a sex strike in order to restore peace amongst the rival gangs. There is something empowering and comedic about these women – young and old – taking extreme measures (complete with chastity belts) to subvert the flow of daily life. And yet, Lee's offensive comments to Stephen Colbert while promoting Chi-Raq, about women on college campuses across the United States needing to do the same in order to curb date rape, have sullied the satire.
There's also the problem of Cusack. In a peculiar casting choice, Lee has the actor playing a community priest spouting facts to his congregation about per-capita income disparity, the prison industrial complex ("mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow," he spits into a microphone) and a brief overview of black history and oppression. Needless to say, the one-time Lloyd Dobler is an unlikely mouthpiece for a poor black community. And it is choices such as this where what is innovative and audacious about Chi-Raq – a musical satire about gun violence starring an all-star black cast is in and of itself a bold move – fades into the drone of repeated statistics.
This film is many things at once: It is didactic but ambitious, affecting but satirical, absurd but also poignant. Take, for instance, Jennifer Hudson, who plays a mother who loses a daughter to a stray bullet. On hands and knees she scrubs her 11-year-old's blood off of the pavement as it rises in pink, foamy bubbles. But consider also: Samuel L. Jackson as a one-man Greek chorus, breaking the film's fourth wall with rhapsodic asides and dirty jokes. With a frenetic and unpredictable pace Chi-Raq clasps tragedy and comedy hand in hand.
I left the film wondering if Lee needed Lysistrata to tell this story. It felt at times as though he was hiding behind Aristophanes in order to gloss over the complexity of black life in contemporary America. Switching between Greek pageantry and a paternalistic pedagogy, Chi-Raq stumbles in its confused and highly stylized ambition. To be sure, Lee's film is worth seeing for its bombastic excess and camo-clad dance scenes. But if you're looking for tactful visual responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and the effects of police brutality, this isn't it. Look instead to the recent protest videos by Rhianna and Beyoncé, which prove that the most effective forms of resistance are not with hyperactive satire but with a steady stare levelled straight at reality.