Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq: Lots of Style, Little Substance

Jan. 21, 2016 / By

With Editing By Michael Lozano

Editorial Note: Once again this year, the Academy Awards are a hot topic because of the lack of representation for people of color. Celebrities from all shades have spoken out against the issue, with some announcing a boycott, including director Spike Lee. In honor of celebrating diversity in films, VoiceWaves reporters gave his latest film a good watch and reflected on the movie.

Even before Spike Lee’s latest film “Chi-Raq” opened in theaters early December, it already faced a barrage of criticism. Lee, no stranger to controversy, offers up a satire on the rampant violence plaguing Chicago, dubbed the “murder capital” of the United States.

It is not a reputation Chicagoans are happy about, and many refute the label, saying the statistics are misinterpreted and give Chicago a worse name than it deserves.

I have never been to Chicago, so I can only view the film from the perspective of an outsider — which by the way, Lee is too. A New York transplant from Georgia, social critics have accused the veteran director of making a profit from Chicago’s problems.

Visually, the film is stunning. During the intro the words “Die” and “Chi-Raq” appear in bright red against a black screen. But the movie’s visual appeal means Lee often puts style before substance. At times, long before.

Statistics show that murders in Chicago since 2001 have now surpassed the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan during the same time. Lee’s treatment of that grim reality is through characters that speak in rhythmic verse for nearly the entirety of the film, with dream-like sequences of syncopated chants and movements.

The film mostly talked at the audience in familiar rants about the toll of gun and gang violence, retelling the evils of systematic oppression that have allowed for such violence to become so rampant. While valid points, the film offered no insight. Everything said in the film has already been said, Lee just made it high quality.

But lack of originality isn’t the film’s greatest shortcoming. It’s that Lee asks audiences to presume that solutions to these problems are easier to come by than they actually are. Adapted from the 4th Century BC Greek play Lysistrata, Chi-Raq depicts the women of Chicago going on a sex strike until the men in rival gangs agree to end the violence.

It is an idiotic idea.

What is Lee trying to say? Because all I really see is an attempt to put the problem on the backs of black women and spinning it as women’s liberation when really it is just a kind of scapegoat.

Why is it up to women only? What about the people with the guns? What about the people who sell the guns, who distribute the guns, or the system that makes being in a gang and having a gun seem like the only option available?

The idea that women would take things into their own hands to save their own people is marvelous, but the approach is not only unfathomable — it also doesn’t take into account rape, whether perpetrated by men against women or against other men.

I wondered as I watched the film about how gay people might navigate such a sex strike. There were only three mentions of LGBTQ people at all in Chi-Raq. In one case, a man chimes in at a meeting of the Knights of Euphrates, a gang in the film, to say that “men on the down-low” – a reference to closeted gay men – were also participating in the strike, to which fellow gang members react with a typical hyper-masculine disgust.

I do appreciate that the film opens a conversation about important topics. Lee does make a valid point – black people do need to solve black problems – but the film spends little time exploring the context of said problems.

In the meantime, viewers are barraged by statistics that feel like an awkward assemblage of numbers thrown together on a pretty silver screen. A few truth bombs are interspersed via heavy-handed and awkwardly constructed conversations between characters.

Lee seems to have ridden into Chicago on a high horse, making snap judgments on issues far more complex than Chi-Raq would have us believe.

The film concludes with a cheesy speech delivered by the main character about how there is still a long way to go, and much work to be done, about the creation of hospitals in the neighborhood and a truce between the warring factions.

Really, Lee? You spent the entire film lecturing us about the war-like chaos in Chicago’s black community just to end it with a neat little bow as if to say, “See, that wasn’t so hard.”

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Chelcee Bunkley

Chelcee Bunkley is 22 year old college freshman attending Long Beach City College and a Southern California native, living in Long Beach since 2009. Chelcee is passionate about film-making, writing, and photography and looks forward to the challenges and victories that come with being an independent filmmaker, freelance photographer and writer. She is an active volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Long Beach. She hopes to tell stories that will help people in some form, whether it be with knowledge of resources, emotionally, or any other way possible.