Spike Lee has never been one to shy away from tough issues in his films. From School Daze, to Do the Right Thing, to Jungle Fever, to Bamboozled, Spike was known for having his pulse on what’s happening in communities across America and he used his films to show the world.
Spike’s latest film, Chi-Raq, turns his camera towards the rising gun violence in Chicago’s south side. One of many interesting choices in the film, Chi-Raq is told through an adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata.
Teyonah Parris (Dear White People, Mad Men) stars as Lysistrata, the girlfriend of a gang leader/rapper named Chiraq (Nick Cannon). She leads a sex strike (based loosely on the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace) after a young girl is killed by a stray bullet. Lysistrata enlist the women in the community to join her sex strike and help bring an end to the violent gang war between The Spartans and The Trojans. Before long, news of the sex strike spreads across the world.
The plot sounds like an uplifting story about the power of women and how communities can come together. It’s not. It sounds like a film that addresses the issues of gang violence that plague Chicago. It sort of is, but mostly its not. A lot of the social commentary the film attempt to address is mixed with so much bad; it’s hard to separate the two.
One of the many interesting choices made by Spike is having 80% of the dialogue in rhyme. It’s a nod to Shakespeare that almost nods you to sleep. When characters don’t rhyme “gun” with “run”, “peace” with “piece” or quoting Biggie and Tupac lyrics, the film is forcing its themes down your throat. It’s the kind of heavy-handedness that makes your eyes roll. Spike, a director know for smart filmmaking, treats the audience like it’s dumb at every turn.
There are a few scenes that are really effective. One is the funeral scene with Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) who gives a goosebump-inducing description of what’s happening in the city, talks about the root causes of gun violence and gives practical solutions. That scene is what people expected from Chi-Raq. It’s what people expect from Spike Lee – an in your face, unapologetic look into why Chicago is the way it is. Sadly, it’s the only bright spot in the film.
The most interesting choice, or most egregious thing about Chi-Raq, is its depiction of women. The women are so overtly sexualized, it’s disgusting. It’s not because women can’t be sexual beings, it’s because that’s all they’re reduced to. Instead of using women’s sexuality as part of what makes them strong, it’s the only thing that makes them necessary. Sex is the only thing they have to offer, and they don’t make an effort to do anything else. The women aren’t smart, they women don’t do anything besides not have sex. Not to mention, they prance around in booty shorts and club dresses like they’re working at a strip club. .
There was a point in the story where it looked like the film might go a little deeper. There’s another group of men who are feeling the effects of the sex strike and they’re equally upset. There’s a scene where Old Duke (Steve Harris) tells a reporter his group isn’t like these gang members shooting up the city, this strike isn’t their fault. This was a great opportunity to talk about how everyone in the community, whether you’re gang affiliated or not, has a responsibility to change things. NOPE. Those men just want sex just like the gang members and they’re upset they aren’t getting it.
The more I think about it, every male/female interaction involves sex. Think about that. Every interaction they have involves having sex, talking about sex, or complaining about not having sex.
The biggest issue is how the women are talked to and treated. Every man refers to them as b***es and hoes and not one of the men is ever corrected. Not one time. And not just the gang members, all the men take that tone with the women and it’s never spoken of as problematic. How this film props itself up to be an uplifting film about what women can do to change things, but can’t help but treat them like vaginas with legs. Why the men go out and gang-bang, the women sit around and wait to cook and have sex with them. It’s unbelievably frustrating to watch.
There’s even an unnecessary rough sex scene, that’s never explained, that also includes a flashback to ANOTHER rough sex scene. I guess Spike had to fill his uncomfortable sex scene quota for the film.
The biggest head scratching moment comes at the end of the film. Spoiler alert: It’s ridiculous. It involves a sex match for peace in Chicago. That’s right A SEX MATCH FOR PEACE IN CHICAGO THAT’S AIRED ON LIVE TELEVISION. After all the violence depicted and real life statistics that are given, the climactic scene involves a sex match? Why would anyone take this movie seriously? The ending beats Stallone’s Over the Top for the most ridiculous premise in the movie history.
Teyonah Parris is a promising young actress and she gives her all in this awful role. She gives 110%. The dialogue and scenes she’s trapped in aren’t her fault.
What’s happening in Chicago is a very serious and Chi-Raq tries its hardest to oversimplify those issues. It doesn’t have the brilliant satire of Bamboozled or the social commentary Do the Right Thing. It’s a mess. Whatever Spike is trying doesn’t work. If it wasn’t Spike Lee behind the camera, people would be offended and boycotting movie theaters for showing it. Chi-Raq is more about sex and sexualizing women than anything else. The film talks about Chicago but the main focus is sexy women withholding sex from men. Seriously, if I didn’t know anything about what was happening in Chicago and I watched Chi-Raq, I wouldn’t learn anything other than black people kill each other , they like to have sex, and it’s ok to treat black women like dirt. That’s it. It’s unclear what kind of movie Spike Lee was trying to make, but Chi-Raq may be the biggest miss of his career.