Released in the US in 2015, and getting an extended release in 2016 in the UK, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq blends political and social commentary with… old-timey stage musicals? (not Spike) Lee reviews.
Good intentions do not innately equate to good delivery, and nowhere could this be clearer than in Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s 2015 gang warfare/protest/social and political satire drama comedy musical (which thankfully saw a wider release in 2016 in the UK).
Here, the messages are loud and clear: gang warfare kills more than actual warfare in the United States (specifically Chicago, our egregious Chi-Raq). The scale of the skirmishes swallow up uninvolved innocents, tears families apart, and leaves desperate families and communities crying for justice on what can essentially be their next door neighbour. Gang members themselves are, in a general sense, being dragged into a self-defeating prophecy simply by being a part of a society that simply ignores (and with mass incarceration being dragged into the crosshairs, the shouts from 2016’s 13TH posits: actively targets) blacks and minorities, and the film skewers this by having a series on opening assaults and the narrative proper result from some trash-talk text messages. Seeing the utility in banding together and fighting for equality is the main cause of Chi-Raq, and if we can get less casualties while we’re at it, all the better.
It’s in the tone that these messages are simply not going to meet their mark. Comedy does a lot to ease much of the expectations, but put simply, an opening credits political rap to gang iconography followed by an all-black rap concert shoot-out is going to have white Netflix browsers drop-out instantly, and the sudden turn from seemingly serious gang-on-gang action to a pseudo-stage musical from the 60s/70s is going to lose anyone on the inside who can help change things for these gangs. Add sexual comedy (including a little gross out), sexual sex, blends of surrealist Greek theatre and utilitarian American political commentaries and the target audience quickly whittles down to Spike Lee fans and movie critics.
Which is entirely a shame because, as weird as it is, Chi-Raq is an absolute sheer joy to behold. While the tone varies wildly, and indiscreetly, from scene to scene, it never proves Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes wrong: the story is one we ain’t ever seen before (a semi-joke, in that the film is actually an adaptation of Lysistrata, but only conceptually more than literally). Women withholding sex from gang members until they truce is an inspired concept that, yes, cartoonishly unrealistic and simply adorable in naivety, does take itself seriously enough that the message holds throughout (that simply measures can bring these factions together) while also making it absolutely rich with comic potential.
Mens Rights Activists kick into gear, the gangs get desperate and the police, the mayor and even the President get drawn into trying to stop this sexless protest, and to see each factor try to get one over the women who barely want to be doing this in the first place because their men are too sexy really works hard to break the story down to simple, based jokes and set-ups that you can’t help but enjoy for the incredulous madness they present. All the tonal issues of classic musicals are here, that inability to truly mesh real storytelling with songs in the asides, but just like the classics you’ll just have too much fun to really care what works and what doesn’t.
You’ll still walk away enraged that the world we live in hangs ever constant in that state of disrepair, but at least you can comfort yourself with some solutions: don’t give the oppressors what they want for long enough and you’ll win out eventually. It’s naive, but that’s what makes it such a great watch. This film actually exists and you can see it and you might even like some of the songs and some of the ideas, and on the possibility that it might, that’s more than enough cause to recommend it.