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Nerdlocker Movie Review: Chi-Raq

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Now, before I rip apart Spike Lee’s newest movie Chi-Raq, let me tell you this; I am a Spike Lee fan. I enjoy and admire a good number of the films in his lengthy, varied catalog, and I was very much looking forward to Chi-Raq.

In 1992, black hats with white capital letter X’s on them were everywhere. As an 11 year old hip-hop head, it sparked my curiosity to see a lot of my favorite rappers and ball players wearing them–in videos, on talk shows, all over. Of course, the hats were promoting Lee’s film about the highly controversial human rights activist, Malcolm X. It was a troubling time for our nation, with civil unrest boiling over during the L.A. riots. People were pissed and Malcolm X wasn’t just a movie, it was a movement. My mom took me to see the film (undoubtedly the longest one I’d seen at that point) and it led me to read Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X and learn about a subject that was glazed over in school.

Fast forward 23 years and the nation is boiling. Gun violence is outta control and Chicago is particularly riddled. More people were murdered in Chicago from 2001-2013 than the total number of U.S. military killed in Afghanistan or Iraq in the same period. It’s ridiculous. That’s why I was thrilled to hear that the director of Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, would turn his eye to the modern day crises in the Chi. Welp, I hate to say it, but this is not the Spike Lee revolution movie you’re looking for. Chi-Raq isn’t only bad, it’s offensive. It’s offensive to Chicago and it’s present situation, offensive to women in general, and offensive to fans of quality cinema.

The film’s fatal flaw is that Lee combines the current tragedy in Chicago with Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata. It’s an interesting approach for sure, one most likely inspired by Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Black Orpheus (Lee’s a fan, listing it as one of his 86 essential films). Camus took the ancient Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice and placed it in (then) modern day Rio de Janeiro. It’s a beautiful film and the concept worked wonderfully. It doesn’t work here though; combining the fantastical elements of Lysistrata with the all-too-real situation in Chicago, does a disservice to both. Placing it there and naming it Chi-Raq gives the expectation that Lee’s going to use the platform to say something meaningful, but he never does. The movie preaches and preaches and it doesn’t really say shit.

The story (from 411 BC) is ridiculous and outdated. A group of women pissed off about the city’s violence start a movement, “no peace, no pussy” and deny their men pleasure as retribution for their behavior. Somehow, without any real effort, the movement catches on and women all over the world join in, affecting men that have no part in the bloodshed. It’s silly and misguided and a slap in the face of the real issues at hand. With less sex and less physical love and lust, I’m pretty sure there would be MORE violence not less. What is Lee saying? An abstinent society is a safe one? Sex is the root of all evil? What’s it say about Lee’s views towards women if he thinks their biggest weapon is the denial of sexual pleasure? The film’s a satire, but there are mixed tones and scenes of heavy melodrama that don’t tug on the heart strings as much as invoke unintentional laughs, i.e., John Cusack’s entire performance. In one scene he is literally preaching to the choir.

Watching the movie, I questioned whether folks from Chicago would embrace it, and I didn’t think they would. There’s nothing Chicago about this movie. It doesn’t have an authentic Chicago feel. It doesn’t accurately portray Chicago’s drill scene. The characters (especially Nick Cannon’s goofy ass) feel Hollywood as fuck. The story could’ve been placed anywhere with heavy crime, but placing it in Chicago and naming it Chi-Raq makes it “relevant” and “urgently topical.” The movie is piggybacking and profiting off of the violence on the south side and it doesn’t properly portray or represent the people that live there. I guess that’s what happens when you let a New York guy make a Chicago movie. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised when I saw Chicago MC, Chance the Rapper going off on twitter. Some of his tweets:

Let me be the one from Chicago to personally tell you we not supporting this film out here

— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 4, 2015

That shit get ZERO love out here. Shit is goofy and it’s a bunch of ppl from NOT around here telling u to support that shit ????????????????????????

— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 4, 2015

The people that made that shit didn’t do so to “Save Lives”. It’s exploitive and problematic

— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 4, 2015

Just clarifying, I’m not damning the director of the film or anyone involved in making it. I am damning the film and the ideas it conveys
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 4, 2015

 

We hear you, Chance. Fight the power.

While the film is misguided, it isn’t a complete bust. It starts with a powerful overture, with Nick Cannon’s “Pray For My City” playing and the lyrics being the only thing shown onscreen. Would’ve been a lot cooler if they had someone from Chicago perform it, but it was a strong beginning nonetheless. Too bad the dramatic score is so ham-fisted and in-your-face. The other highlight is Samuel L. Jackson as super fly narrator, Dolmedes. He exhibits loads of charisma and is fantastic in the role. Wesley Snipes doesn’t fair as well rocking a bejeweled eye patch.

Suburbanites and people far removed might find a voyeuristic entertainment in the film, but people affected by violent crimes will probably see it as an exploitative mockery and won’t appreciate the satirical approach. The gun epidemic is kind of like cancer, it isn’t really real until it hits you or someone you know. Then it’s no laughing matter.

2 out of 5 Nerdskulls

Trailer:

Stills:


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Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.