Nobody wanted Chi-raq to be a good movie more than I did. I wanted it to be the best movie.
As an extra in the film – alternating between the roles of “Riot Police Officer,” “National Guard Soldier,” and “National Guard Dancer,” I was invested. Chi-raq was my first experience on the set of major film, and I gave 10 days of my summer – long days that ranged anywhere from 10 to 16 hours, to acting out my small parts.
And though they were small, I spent months hoping for an epic masterpiece. I hoped for a dark horse to ride in with a powerful message and spark an authentic change in the streets of Chicago.
I regularly checked the film’s IMDB page for a release date, shared updates as they appeared on social media, and pre-ordered the Blu-ray as soon as it was available.
Even as an extra, I could have been as proud of Chi-raq as its creator, Spike Lee.
And then I saw it…
First, I’ll offer the disclaimer that I knew gun control was (thematically) going to be a big part of the story. Still, it was a chance to be a part of a movie helmed by a well-known director, and since it was my first opportunity, I wasn’t about to turn it down.
Despite those themes Chi-raq had some very redeeming qualities. In theory it could have had a profound impact on its subject; Chicago neighborhoods driven by gang violence – burdened by black on black crime.
But the final product seemed to lose track of its audience. For every good point the film championed, something was said or done to negate it.
- It lost focus. Chi-raq’s first ambition seemed to be telling a reckless and violent criminal class, “Enough is enough.” I support that. Making an emotional appeal against senseless killing and asking our brothers and sisters to consider how violence perpetuates more violence is cool, but the film strayed from that. After a while Spike’s political leanings bled through into the picture and left me asking, “Where’s this going?” Was Spike still speaking to the hood? It became unclear. Suddenly Chi-raq went from a cautionary tale set in Chicago to a cinematic treatise on racial inequality, income inequality, and the need for stricter gun laws. It even mentioned how these gangsters could buy guns with a fake ID at Indiana gun shows without a background check. To be clear, I doubt the subjects of the film frequent Indiana gun shows. Of the many other issues Chi-raq went on to address I sympathize with Black Lives Matter, I agree that private prisons are a mistake, and I understand that there have been far too many instances of bigotry and racism within the prison industrial complex, and with local and state police forces. But it seemed out of place. Because of these outside voices Chi-raq seemed to turn away from its original audience for the purpose of chewing out a larger, equally bad, yet still unrelated culture. I didn’t like that.
- Unnecessary commentary. Periodically Samuel L. Jackson’s character Dolmedes would interrupt with a third party observation about the events unfolding. Dolmedes didn’t belong anywhere else in the story. He was a narrator, and by no fault of Mr. Jackson’s, he should have been cut. Throughout the movie I understood what was happening just fine, and Dolmedes’ summaries didn’t contribute anything to better my experience.
- Comedy or Satire? There were several scenes that, as standalones, could have been very funny. I remember approaching Spike Lee one day as he thumbed through his text messages and telling him, “This is going to be hilarious.” Granted, as an extra I didn’t know the film’s synopsis. I didn’t know anything more than what other uninformed extras had told me on set. He gave me a kind of unamused look and asked, “Is it?” Of course he did. He knew his vision for the film. I didn’t. In the final edit the scenes that seemed really funny while filming were held back, diluted, and restrained. Since then Spike Lee has emphasized the difference between comedy and satire during promotional interviews, insisting that the humor in Chi-raq is about satire and not comedy. At the end of the day though, it just made me wish those scenes weren’t in the movie at all.
- The lyric. A majority of the dialogue had a kind of rhyme to it. Most of the verbal acting was in spoken word. Sometimes it was really effective, but most of it was just overdone and distracting.
- It failed women. Throughout the movie a battle of the sexes played out. The female characters in Chi-raq set out to abstain from sex until the men stopped killing each other. Okay. But despite gun violence being the central issue, Lysistrada’s strategy could have also worked in favor of feminism in a cinematic world where the female characters were very much objectified and mistreated. The male characters outwardly called female characters “bitches,” “wenches,” and “hos,” and even referred to their lady parts as “nappy pouches.” With all of the power Lysistrada’s army were able to demonstrate in Chi-raq, they could have changed the game and ended up with a more peaceful community AND a community of men that treated them with respect. Instead they embraced the sexism, almost as if to say, “You can treat me any way that you want as long as you stop shooting each other.” That was a shame.
- Cinematography. The pictures were beautiful throughout. Kudos to Spike Lee for the quality of his visuals.
- Moments of brilliance. There were certain scenes – particularly those involving the daughter of Jennifer Hudson’s character Irene, which came across as sincere and powerful. I really found myself in it. I wish there had been more of that.
- It started a conversation. When the message was on point it was strong! I hope it reaches more than just the casual viewer, and hits those that are actually committing the acts of violence that Chi-raq
- Performances. All of the actors did a great job. Even with the spoken word that I disliked, all of the cast, but particularly Nick Cannon, Teyonnah Parris, Angela Bassett, and John Cusack, did a phenomenal job of interpreting the spirit of the dialogue. Their level of professionalism was evident.
- It explored a solution. While it’s unlikely that a sex strike will spark a revival in a very misguided and jaded culture, at least it makes a proposal. At the end of Chi-raq, no one should walk away demanding that sex be withheld. However, everyone should walk away asking, “If not sex, how can we fix this?” And for that, Chi-raq should be applauded.