I enjoyed Chi-Raq. Full disclosure, I don’t read reviews. When I make a decision to go see a movie, I don’t want my experience to be tainted by the opinions of others. I went to see Chi-Raq because I felt that it was a story that needed to be told and I was grateful that Spike Lee was going to take it on. Furthermore, I love reimaginations of classic stories; they explore the nature of the human condition regardless of time.
And that is why I enjoyed the movie. Despite being almost 2500 years since Aristophanes original work, the nature of war, both global and gender are still present and more specifically, plaguing an facet of humanity that we are often invited to ignore, low income Black communities. Lee revived Lysistrata to comment on the discounted role (and pain) of women during war. According to Hillary Clinton, “Women have always been the primary victims of war” (1998).
I was excited and impressed by the cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Dave Chappelle, and Wesley Snipes, powerful voices in the Black community, some of whom experienced the pay of losing loved ones to violence.
Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett carry this film; provide the emotional support on which Lysistrata draws her own strength and manages to walk away from her big time hustler boyfriend lifestyle. There is a beautiful moment where Miss Helen Worthy (Bassett) asks Lysistrata to describe why she is with Chi-Raq. Lysistrata responds. “He’s going to be famous one day.” That moment broke my heart given that Lysistrata’s identity and entire purpose in life is being the girlfriend of a rapper.
Despite multiple women’s movements, this is still the goal for many women: not doing great things by pursuing or achieving their own agency and individuality, but rather attaching themselves to a man who is going to do great things.
SIDEBAR: I’ve been particularly bothered by this clip of Michelle Obama that has gone viral where she encourages young women not to let some man drag you down, “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education.” However, the video ends with her saying, “If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the president of the United States.” This phrase is painfully oxymoronic; she doesn’t care what men think, but her greatest claim to fame is her husband’s political status?
However, Miss Helen demands Lysistrata think harder and lean in the way this generation knows how, “Google.” Cut to Lysistrata watching a video about the Leymah Gbowee and the 2002 sex strike in Liberia that ended a 14-year civil war.
There was some flack over the casting of Nick Cannon, but I thought it worked. A friend of mine said, “Nick Cannon is the Black Ryan Seacrest;” basically harmless and unimpressive” (but everywhere), thus making his performance as Chi-Raq, a rapper/gangster, hard to believe. However, I think that it is precisely this celebrity persona that made appreciate and embrace his performance. The character is actually not as hard as he pretends to be, instead putting on the mask of masculinity because he assumes that it was a man is supposed to be. Chi-Raq is a boy who lost his father and watched his mother turn tricks for rent; he is still a boy whose chase for tail and a reputation prevent him from internal accountablity. He is a flawed man and Nick Cannon’s desperate hardness is perfect for the character.
As much as I enjoyed the performances and the application of classic Greek theater to current issues, Spike Lee trying to tell a female empowerment story falls flat. Although there is some awareness and critique of the social construction that women are playthings for men, the commentary stops just shy of actual empowerment.
Women are constantly mocked for their lack of control (See: Jezebel stereotype), despite the explicit message that they have agency. The women’s oath, which is recited repeatedly proudly and unproblematically throughout the film, uses language that is blatantly non-consensual (“If he should force me to lay on that conjugal coach; I will refuse his stroke and not give up that nappy pouch”). The final showdown is a sex battle between Lysistrata and Chi-Raq: “The first one to come loses.”And halfway through the film, Commissioner Blades attempts to “bomb” Lysistrata’s army with slow jams, assuming that the music would make the women so horny, they would surrender.
The worse part is that the music does make they women so horny they want to surrender, and they combat these urges with earplugs; I wished that had simply laughed and the stupidity of men. But I suppose they do that throughout the film.
I haven’t even begun to discuss John Cusack, whose role as the woke White preacher in a Black community. He is first on the scene at the death of Irene’s (played by Jennifer Hudson) daughter at the start of the film, and delivers a soaring eulogy at the child’s funeral during the climax of the second act, an emotionally charged plea to God and each individual to bring change to their community. I am still working through what it means for Lee to give such a soaring monologue to one of the few White characters in the movie, albeit the most likable.
Overall, I enjoyed the film for its individual parts: certain actors, certain characters, certain scenes, certain dialogue, but as a whole, I was left wanting a more cohesive film. It teetered between Hollywood (or Bollywood) musical, romantic comedy, drama, and social satire, featuring Samuel L. Jackson as narrator. But I suppose that is what I should expect from a Spike Lee Joint.
Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015): 4/5 Stars
For a more detailed analysis of the film and the layers at which Chi-Raq succeeds and fails, check out Helen Morales’ “(Sex) Striking Out: Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.”