Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker. All throughout his career, Lee has displayed an incredible passion towards the subject of race relations. When it is done right, the results are classics like “Do the Right Thing” or “Malcolm X”. The problem with Lee though is that unlike his earlier work, he lately feels that in order to make a point about race relations he has to be as over-the-top as possible. This basically is the cinematic equivalent of banging the audience over the head with a frying pan while screaming “Race Relations!” over and over again. To feel this feeling, one can go and watch his latest feature Chi-Raq
Just a quick note before delving into the meat of the movie: this movie was co-written by one of my former film professors Kevin Wilmott, a professor at the University of Kansas. While it is super cool to see a great professor and fellow Jayhawk get credit (and seriously check out Confederate States of America, a damn great satire), this should not distract from how I thought of the film as a whole.
Based upon Aristophanes play “Lysistrata” and transporting the action to modern day, Chicago, Chi-Raq is ultimately about what happens when women decide to stop gang violence by depriving sex from their gangster boyfriends. While Aristophanes’ play was a funny satire within the classical Greek Tradition, it seems like Chi-Raq does not know what type of film it wants to be. There are many sequences that seem as though they are trying to bring up a Greek comedy within the guise of a modern day tale, but also trying to create a serious point about race relations. With this in mind, I’d like to point out two opposite scenes in particular that show this dichotomy.
In looking at this film from a comedic standpoint, I’d like to point Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Dolemedes. Dolemedes is the chorus of the play and he is served for comic effect greatly. The fact that he is a take-off on Dolemite the character is pretty great too (seriously, now this is a remake that needs to happen, Jackson as Dolemite). The problem is, Jackson is the only one at times acting like it is a comedy while some of the action around him becomes serious. This creates a very uneven tone in the movie and the surrealist sequences such as when Lysistrata’s army and the officers outside dance to slow-jams make the story too ridiculous. Its this uneven tone that really sinks the story and takes away from the message of the film, which is an important message about gun violence in Black communities.
As I said earlier, Chi-Raq works much better when the action and message is subtle. There is an especially poignant scene with a mother (played by Jennifer Hudson, herself a victim of gun violence) who is trying to wipe away the blood from her daughter’s crime scene. The problems is that every time she puts her brush in the bucket, the water becomes bloodier and bloodier until she is wiping the pavement with bloody water. This sequence is incredibly powerful and shows how hard we try to clean up our problems, blood and violence will always come back.
While there is a good idea in Chi-Raq, the movie is still a mess and should have decided what the tone was going to be.
Final rating: 2 out of 4 stars.