Published on January 15th, 2016 | by Dave Scaddan0
We need Spike Lee to say things that others aren’t willing to say, but we also need him to do a good job of it.
I have no reason to want to hate on Spike Lee. I probably try harder to love his films than I do with most directors, simply because he’s so unapologetic, using the form to create and transmit what’s on his mind, what’s on a lot of people’s minds. So it gives me no pleasure to say that Chi-Raq, his latest feature about gun violence and the radical means needed to end it, is a really bad film.
I usually agree with Spike Lee. Two years ago when Django Unchained was met with almost universal praise, Spike was the only one saying what I felt about it, even though I mostly found the movie entertaining. Something about it didn’t seem right. Even though Django had dignity, even though the film’s script pulled no punches with the true-to-life savagery of its villains, even though the movie has a righteous ending, it just didn’t seem like it should be QT’s story to tell. Spike said all this without even seeing the movie, and yet I still felt he was right. Turning slavery into a template for gaudy action/adventure entertainment, no matter how skillfully done, is not something a non-black artist — if anyone — should do, and I’ll admit I feel guilty for having been entertained by it. Of course, all Spike really accomplished was to give Django even more hype than it already had, and he must have known this, being so good at the hype game in his own right. But he just couldn’t help himself, and that’s why we need people like him, to keep speaking their minds and showing the real side behind the fantasies that cost us more than we can afford.
This month, Spike went up against some legendary box office competition with a film so ambitious, I almost love it for daring to be as bad as it is. Chi-Raq is a modern-day revisualization of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a story about a sex strike organized by women to end the senseless warring amongst their men. It has dance numbers, musical interludes, documentary-style reporting about the state of emergency in Chicago’s poor neighbourhoods, and practically the whole script is written in rhymes. It’s a throwback to his second film, School Daze, in that it tries to be part performance music video, part film, and also a throwback to his first film, She’s Gotta Have it, in that it’s really all about sex.
Chi-Raq has all the skillful earmarks of Spike Lee’s best: it’s unapologetically opinionated and brash, it’s full of passionate speeches and makes powerful use of still imagery, but the writing — and some of the performances — take plenty off of the table. The rhyme scheme thing, in keeping with the Greek classic it’s based on, is often beyond Spike’s means, and costs the film a lot of relatable potential. He’s got a great cast here, and Angela Basset, John Cusack, and Samuel L. Jackson deliver one really great scene each, but the weaknesses of the writing, the rhyming, and the pacing turn the whole thing into a ‘laugh at, not with’ farce, which is not what you want when you’re on the hunt for political and social change. To put it another way: Spike forces so many rhymes at the ends of his couplets, that his troupe of masters seem more like his muppets.
Chi-Raq actually sabotages an almost-decent second act with indefensible pacing. The film takes a full half hour just to establish its overly-ambitious premise, that gang violence in Chicago is so out of control that its women need to impose a “no peace, no pussy” ultimatum. Then, the implementation of this sex strike is handled in about three minutes during which the audience is treated like it has no intelligence whatsoever. The ban just happens, with no focus on the intriguing hows and whys, turning the film into a very frustrating experience, then a masquerade, then a sanctimonious poem to the American public. It’s highbrow in its concept, but lowbrow in its looks, it wants to be Aristophanes, but it’s low grade Mel Brooks.
What Lee doesn’t realize is that he doesn’t need gimmicks to make great films — his eye, his style, his balls, are greater assets than any gimmick could ever be. Funeral song-and-dance routines shouldn’t inspire mocking laughter with their overblown schmaltz, films about the clout of empowered female sexuality shouldn’t objectify women, and portrayals of violent, terrifying thugs shouldn’t be left to actors who are obviously pansies more at home on Americas Got Talent.
Nick Cannon, in the lead role as the title character, is a total fiasco. His performance, trying to sell himself as a fearless, gang-dedicated, trigger-happy kingpin/street rapper is one of the least believable leads I’ve seen since watching Leo DiCaprio (at about 75 kilos and sweet as a lily) try to portray old New York’s most ruthless streetfighter in Gangs of New York. Spike Lee has Cannon almost constantly shot with a blunt in his hand or his teeth, and he overplays his puffing so badly that he ends up looking like a nine-year old with a sucked-down lollipop stick pretending it’s a smoke. Even in a hip-hop context where men who are essentially fashion models regularly expect us to believe that they are hard, bad men, Cannon comes off soft. When he cries a single, meant-to-be-riveting tear at the end of the film, (in an “I am your father” climax lifted from the likes of The Empire Strikes Back) it is only moving because it is funny. He should stick to hosting talent shows while draped in silky sleekness, where being a heartthrob sissy is an asset, not a weakness.
In terms of aiming for high art and comic entertainment, Chi-Raq really wants to be Dr. Strangelove, but ends up more like National Lampoon than Stanley Kubrick. Comedy and poetry can be among the most powerful artistic vehicles for sparking change, but they need the skills of high art to do so, and those skills just aren’t consistently in place in Chi-Raq. Spike’s message is noble — innocents and confused youth dying from bullets that no one ever seems to see fired is a tragedy, and a grave reminder of our shockingly eroded human values. But when that message is conveyed in such weak art, when these truths are spoken in such an unaligned, garish way, it threatens to cheapen the message.