The Most Beautiful Fraud: Chi-Raq

It must be exciting, being Spike Lee.  He started his career over 30 years ago, when you could count the number of prominent black filmmakers on one hand that had been mangled in a threshing mishap, and, in an era that was much more vocally racist than today, he frequently had to contend with difficulties in financing his films, accusations of radicalism from white critics who found him too much of a provocateur, and detractors in the black community who felt he was making them look bad. Now, decades later, things have changed, and while Spike isn’t the only prominent black filmmaker on the block, you still don’t need two hands to count them, and he is now forced to contend with difficulties in financing his films, accusations of sexism from black critics who find him not enough of a provocateur, and detractors in the black community who feel he is making them look bad.

The more thing change, etc.:  Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, was getting him in trouble months before it was even released, with critics, activists, and assorted internet opinion-havers alternately accusing him of making light of gun violence in Chicago at the expense of the black community or making light of gun violence in Chicago to the benefit of the black community.  None of them had seen the film, of course; they’ve now had a chance, and plenty of his more vocal detractors from every conceivable cultural, racial, and political position are rushing to savage the movie now that they have something more substantial than a trailer to go on.

Many of the criticisms strike me as pretty unfair, particularly the use of a specific rhyme scheme in which to deliver the dialogue, characterized as “Shakespearian” by someone who couldn’t be troubled to pay attention in English class, and the idea that the film’s premise — that a cease fire in Chicago’s gang wars could be affected by women enacting a ‘sex strike’ against men — is misogynist and offensive.  Even if that were true, even if the film was meant to be literal rather than an allegory, even if the scheme didn’t actually work even within the logic of the movie, the blame should really be placed on a guy who’s been dead for over 2,000 years.

If these critics, whose determination to disrespect any attempt at art they suspect of not conforming to their own biases informs their own work far more than it does the work they are charged with analyzing, were watching the movie on the screen more than they were the version of it that played in their own heads, they might have noticed that it’s one of Lee’s most engaging, energetic, and interesting films in years.  Though it operates without the benefit of an Ernest Dickerson behind the camera, it has strong echoes of Do the Right Thing‘s engagement with color, composition, rhythm, and movement; its powerful language and musical sensibility recalls the high points of the thematically similar School Daze; and, far from making light of the bloodshed on the South Side or blaming it entirely on ‘thugs’, it becomes deadly serious when it deals with both the multifarious causes and devastating effects of gun violence.  Anyone who can sit through Jennifer Hudson’s wrenching performance as a young mother who lost her daughter to a stray bullet without tearing up is a lot more callous than I was able to be.

Which isn’t to say that Chi-Raq isn’t funny; it is a satire, after all, and frequently a very good one.  Lee has taken pains in interviews, thanks to the usual hectoring he gets every time he attempts to express himself, to distinguish between satire and comedy, and to insist that he’s not trying to score cheap laughs over a national tragedy.  But there are lots of funny moments in the film, some subtle and devastating, others simply goofy and absurd.  I saw it with an almost entirely African-American audience on the South Side, and they seemed to be entertained; putting entertainment in a film with a message is something of a lost art anymore, given the proliferation of the ‘problematic’, but Lee pulls it off pretty well here.

In fact, the moments when the movie works least are the ones when it tries to be the most serious.  Lysistrata is not a documentary; it’s a fable, a farce, a legend.  In keeping with that approach, Chi-Raq gets pretty preachy at times, often in the person of an actual preacher played by John Cusack. (One of the furious reviews of the film I read waxed indignant over this piece of casting, apparently unaware that the character is based on a real person, Father Michael Pfleger.)  The ‘timely’ references to Michael Brown and Dylan Roof, the finely-tuned fulminations against the prison industry, and the contemporary political argument are by far the clunkiest parts of the film.  But then, like its many cultural precedents, it is not meant to be an actual program for political action, despite the apparent expectations of some of its most dour critics; it is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are often didactic and always unrealistic.

Chi-Raq was also made on the cheap, financed and produced through Netflix and with a relatively small budget that is often all too obvious on the screen.  Lee has had trouble financing his films lately (I can’t imagine why), but while in the recent past, that has led him to frustration and the tendency to turn in sloppy work, here it seems to have done the opposite: as with his earliest work, like the guerilla-financed She’s Gotta Have It, the cheapness of Chi-Raq inspired him to improvisation, creativity, and poetry.  The result on the screen, in the actual art of the film and not in the dreams of critics, is artful, beautiful, lively, and fascinating, visually and sonically engaging, and acted by a surprising ensemble cast who all deliver terrific performances.  It has plenty of problems (a bit of padding towards the middle, which might as well be a video on loan from the city’s tourist bureau, is more obnoxious than anything the critics have attacked it for), but it’s a return to form for someone who is, for better or worse, our greatest black director, and our best hope that there will be more.

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