Talk about a misunderstood film, the twittersphere has never been more wrong than with their vitriol for this abstract work of art that satirically explores one of the hot button issues of the time period. As a twitter advocate I usually admire the motivation to spread awareness on controversial issues, many of which involve the desecration and misrepresentation regarding race and culture. However in this single case I’m disappointed to think that the millennials have not done their homework, because if they are familiar with Spike Lee joints they should understand that Chi-Raq is not only par for the course, but in my estimation it’s as good as half of his catalogue.
Take a journey with Spike Lee into the depths of the windy city, where so many people are dying that pop culture has compared it to the war in Iraq. Of course the data to support that notion is available and irrefutable, and it’s not difficult to understand why so many critics would be up in arms, considering that the prevailing thought is that Lee has exploited that fact and made a mockery of such a tragic situation. However the reality is that Lee has brought awareness to the epidemic homicide rates in Chicago by doing what he’s always done… making a film that pushes the envelope creatively while challenging the audience to think from a different point of view. Mission accomplished; as no matter if it’s fantasy or reality the message is that the mindless killing simply needs to stop... and of course by any means necessary.
Inspired by the Greek playwright Aristophanes celebrated tale Lysistrata, a comedic play that explores a woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War, Lee revisits the story through the eyes of a young woman in modern day Chi-Raq (formally known as the great city of Chicago). Fed up with the abundance of murders in the city the young lady decides to take it upon herself to make a change, knowing that even though she’s only one woman she is empowered to know how much she can control. And what that control personifies… just might be the most powerful tool in the universe… which is sex. As flagrant as it sounds, Lee (and Aristophanes before him - seemingly without the same criticism) does present an intriguing theory, if destructive men are unlikely to change their ways through any other means, is withholding sex as a last resort really such an outrageous idea? Suspending the belief of whether it’s realistic or not, strictly in theory, would it work? I’d venture to say of course it would thus from a satirical perspective this film is cinematic gold, even if it does fall short from a practical standpoint which, despite criticism, was not what it set out to do.
Nonetheless what Lee does strive to do he does well, as the performances are outstanding and the dialogue is… interesting, but effective. Performed in spoken word as if it’s a continuous rap from beginning to end, I can see how this style of dialogue would be an acquired taste. Yet if you look around it’s not hard to notice that this style is seemingly acquired by many, as the Broadway show Hamilton has broken records telling it’s own story using a similar method. Furthermore in regards to the question of morality in the film's satirical approach, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful won 3 Academy Awards and was nominated for 4 more, including best picture and best director and that was for creating humor (and subsequently art) out of the extermination of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust - [therefore the critics clearly need to make up their minds regarding what's off limits.] The fact is that many of the scenes themselves are clever enough to be downright hilarious, deliberately, and some of that can be attributed to an unusual cast that unexpectedly turns in some powerful performances. Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon are our film’s main protagonist’s respectively, and while the former is new to the scene the latter is the last person you’d expect to play this role for Lee, yet it winds up adding mystique as the film’s temperament is within an alternate fantasy world after all.
The supporting cast includes John Cusack who plays a passionate yet outrageous preacher (he looks ridiculous), and elsewhere we have a gang leader in Wesley Snipes who’s not to be upstaged by anyone as the most bizarre. In contrast Angela Bassett and Samuel L Jackson play roles more customary for what they’re known for, and even Dave Chappelle pops up to add his charm to the mix. Otherwise Jennifer Hudson is courageous as a mother who has just lost her child, a role that is eerily similar to a tragedy in her own life, as three of her family members were murdered in Chicago only a few years prior. With that in mind Hudson’s inclusion in this film is interesting, as while so many of the city’s prominent figures have deemed the very nature of the film so objectionable, where does Hudson fit in this narrative?
The reality is that Spike Lee did not make a documentary, nor did he make the serious film that the critics may have preferred. However in the same vein as School Daze and Bamboozled, he took a serious subject and made art out of it, and each and every time his created fantasy was able to stimulate a real conversation. It’s only disappointing that this time the conversation is so inherently biased, that even an artist who VOLUNTARILY PARTICIPATED IN THE MOVIE has come out to berate the film, showing just how powerful social media and group think can have on the interpretation of anything. Yet what that young recording artist (who will go unnamed due to irrelevance) doesn’t understand is that real works of art are often misunderstood or underappreciated in the moment, and in today’s era the best art will undoubtably have a longer lifespan than today’s trending topic.