REVIEW: ‘Chi-Raq’ Is A Dirty Bomb Of Symbolic Resonance
If you’re reading this… and you’re from Chicago. Stop it. I know Spike didn’t license any Lil Durk tracks for the film and knows less about Deep Dish pizza, but wait… This movie is bigger than you. The issues in this movie are bigger than your city. They are current, primal, eternal, and this motion picture is smart enough to inherently represent that. With its arc coming from the Ancient Myth Lysistrata and being set in America’s 15th most murder struck city, it creates a duality. It’s giving you the eternal struggle versus the ‘now’ of violence. It’s not “about” you, Chicago, in the sense of representational portraiture, it’s an essay that’s citing you as symbol.
If you’re Chance The Rapper, stop pretending you know anything about cinema and go back to sounding like a slightly more boring Donald Glover playing broken telephone with Young Thug, unable to keep up because your manager accidentally put real Lean in your cup instead of the “DayQuil Decoy.” Spike Lee has always been here. No one in the past 30 years has discussed intersectional issues in a (mostly) mainstream US cinematic space with as much wit and intelligence. I honestly feel that if he had made Chi-Raq with a simple, Fruitvale Station-esque, victimy narrative it would have ruffled less feathers. But guess what? This is an actual American Auteur, with a voice! He’s not making this to serve any special interest, or master. Remember that phenomenon? Have you ever watched a Spike Lee movie?
Ever since his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, a multiple perspective sex comedy inspired by the Structure of Kurosawa’s Roshomon, Lee’s always had a poetically playful and jarring approach to narrative. Chi-Raq takes all his most commercially honed skills and marries them with techniques from recent under-the-radar work. What we get is a 15 million dollar, Amazon funded, experimental blockbuster.
Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata. This central character creates a female-led sex strike to stop gang violence in Chicago. She builds a female army of abstinence. Cis-male opposition follows. Cultural jokes hit the screen like ink blots. “No Peace, No Pussy” becomes the resonant cultural meme. Most everyone speaks in simple rhyming verse, like Shakespeare-meets-Mos Def ghostwriting dirty limericks. It stages its massive amounts of extras with bobs, twerks, and Bob Fosse fluidity. The movie turns political, and by the halfway point, starts to feel like a hallucinatory Vonnegut novel. It’s a satirical, fantasy, social activist film.
Chi-Raq is best seen as a companion piece to his scathing, year 2000, future foreseeing, Mini DV shot satire, Bamboozled. A narrative about a black TV writer and his frustration with poor representation of people of color in the media. The writer submits a rage inspired, sarcastic show pitch for a modern day minstrel show to his bosses. Much to his chagrin, the producers love it! Once green lit, hell breaks loose in America. Much like this new film, it’s a brilliantly exhaustive cultural mosaic. These two works are Basquiat paintings come to life. Ideological graffiti, spray painted from our time’s pregnant ether.
Bamboozled was prescient. In our current world of Effie Brown “flagging” diversity to a ‘mansplaining’ Matt Damon, and more serious conversations on cultural appropriation and the implications of our media’s foundational, white male gaze, the film is a seer. It shows that Spike Lee really always got it. He said it.
Chi-Raq will age just as well. While some people think he’s cashing in on Chicago — that’s fine, he is. But what this troll is leading people to is a poignant discussion of the black experience in America, done with the type of Brechtian ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ effect he’s employed heavily since School Daze.
You found it. Enjoy it. This is the Black Lives Matter flick, made by a baby boomer Mark Twain. Better that than any overly-sentimental, politically neutered cash-in of this revolution. It has a strange tone (which to me is aesthetically satisfying) and keeps the fire on the right fight. Raise your fucking fist.