Chi-Raq, the latest Spike Lee film, was lauded as one of his best in recent years. Lee received consensus praise from critics celebrating the movie as “a marvel”, “[a] thunderous wake-up alarm,” and “vital.” However, the film’s critical reception diverged from audience opinions; native Chicagoans were far more apprehensive of the film the moment the trailers hit.
That distrust of Chi-Raq’s depiction of black life in Chicago continued after it dropped. Prominent Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper and Rhymefest made public statements about the film’s exploitative nature. (Lee, ever the firebrand, continues to defend the intent and purpose behind the film.)
After watching the film myself, I gathered two friends — Tyler Burns (a CAPC staff writer and editor at Reformed African American Network) and Ekemini Uwan (a writer and speaker, and Westminster Theological Seminary student) — to enrich the conversation around Chi-Raq, and provide an alternative perspective on the artistic merits of Spike’s latest provocation.
Why us? Tyler, Ekemini, and I are African Americans, and by default, offer something closer to a lived experience of Chi-Raq’s themes than the vast majority of mainstream film critics. Also, we love Spike Lee’s movies, and we’re (still) waiting for the next Do the Right Thing.
We hope you enjoy.
I was in shock when I learned that [Lee] decided to take a satirical approach to the gun violence in Chicago. Black pain is not a commodity, and it certainly is not entertainment.
Bradford: So, friends, Chi-Raq had a lot of press leading up to it, especially after the trailer. Take me back to when you first heard about the film, and how you felt leading up to its release.
Ekemini: I heard about the film back in 2013 or 2014, and I was elated. I’m a huge Spike Lee fan — always have been — because he has always done an excellent job of telling dynamic stories about the black experience. As a news junkie, I’ve been keeping up with the gun violence in Chicago for several years now. The reports are heart-wrenching and many of the stories have stayed with me. Given the gravity of the situation in Chicago, I thought to myself, “Spike Lee is the man for the job! He will be able to capture the nature and scope of what is happening in Chicago.” I reached that conclusion because of the phenomenal work he did in When the Levees Broke. Not only did he capture the plight, pain, and suffering of the residents of New Orleans after Katrina, he also demonstrated the systemic failures that led up to that disastrous storm. That’s what I expected from Spike but as the release drew closer, I learned that Chi-Raq was nothing like I had imagined it would be. In fact, I was in shock when I learned that he decided to take a satirical approach to the gun violence in Chicago. Black pain is not a commodity, and it certainly is not entertainment.
Bradford: I, unfortunately, have not seen When the Levees Broke, but I hear it’s one of his best films because it captures the pain of a people that have been failed without filter or sensationalism. It’s a format he’s successfully used to capture a serious subject matter. Now, I will say that I’d like to see satire with difficult subjects. But satire is a difficult genre, and missteps can seriously damage discourse of the subject, or the image of people you hope to represent well.
Ekemini: Yes, satire is a rare gift not bestowed on many. After learning that Chi-Raq was going to be a satire, and after watching the trailer, I, along with most of Black Twitter, was upset. I decided to boycott the movie, and I had zero desire to watch the film. I watched it because a wise friend *glares at Bradford* convinced me that our perspective of the film might enrich the conversation and provide more insight as to why many people did not receive Chi-Raq with open arms.
Tyler: My initial thoughts about the movie Chi-Raq were probably clouded by seeing the Chi-Raq web documentary a couple years ago. That project was an immersive look at the misguided life of street hip hop sensation Chief Keef. The web series was jarring and painted a quite serious, yet multi-faceted picture of gang violence in Chi-town. When I heard about Spike’s Chi-Raq, I was intrigued, expecting a similarly serious take on the city’s ills. The first trailer, which introduced the film’s satirical context, made me… nervous. While satire done well can be effective, this movie appeared, at first glance, to be more silly than solutions-oriented.
Bradford: Tyler, tell us more. What could have made Chi-Raq, as a satire, work better?
Tyler: Well, Chi-Raq‘s biggest problem is that it’s not sure what movie it wants to be. It felt like a combination of two or three different films. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when it’s serious or when it’s intentionally absurd. It’s a satire only when it wants to be. It never truly goes all the way. I find that to be particularly true when considering its handling of the source material. Lysistrata — the play the film is based on — doesn’t take the idea of a sex strike as a serious way of dealing with the societal issue of “inter-squad” violence. Meanwhile, Chi-Raq ranges from absurdist dance routines performed by women –*ahem* in the mood — to wise grandma Angela Bassett telling us it’s the only way to stop gun violence, with no question about the plan’s sincerity whatsoever.
Ekemini: Yes, and Lelymah Gwobee — the Liberian woman suggested by Angela Bassett’s “Miss Helen” as an example of a successful sex strike — said this: “The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention” (Mighty Be Our Powers, New York, Beast Books, 2011). What brought an end to the warfare in Liberia was Leymah’s organizing other women to occupy the building where peace talks were taking place. From her testimony, the war ended through (1) prayer and (2) occupation. It was disingenuous for Spike to present a sex strike as a legitimate answer to gun violence in Chicago when his primary source said it had no practical effect.
Bradford: Yeah, it’s like: Spike, did you read the end of that story? I kinda wonder if he did, especially after suggesting sex strikes as a solution to rape on college campuses. Why would a crime based entirely on violence towards those that have not consented to sex be eliminated by… not consenting to sex? Where’s the logic in that? Anyway, it seems like we’re centering around an idea: Spike fails to depict the city of Chicago and the issues that create the violence of the south and west side.Chi-Raq’s biggest problem is that it’s not sure what movie it wants to be… Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when it’s serious or when it’s intentionally absurd.
Ekemini: Indeed. Not only that, I think it speaks volumes that many Chicagoans did not like the film. I believe that their reaction should be considered. After all, no one else loves Chicago more and wants the best for the city more than the residents who call that place home.
Tyler: It feels like Spike’s approach to Chicago was more like an approach to “Anytown, USA” rather than the specific ills that plague that city. Miss Helen even makes reference to that, right? She says that the violence isn’t any different than the carnage in Philly or Brooklyn or other big cities. But that’s not true! Chicago has unique contextual problems from education to economics to bad legislation. But Chicago’s unique mixture of problems appeared flattened into a single mantra: ”We just need to stop killing each other.”
Hey, can we talk about one good part of the film? Jennifer Hudson can act, y’all. The use of her as a Chicago native and victim of gun violence is particularly poignant given her personal story. (She found her brother and mother shot dead.) Seeing her react to gun violence in the film was powerful, but she was drastically underused. How different would the film be if she was at the center?
Ekemini: She was definitely underutilized. I wasn’t able to see the full-range of her acting ability. She did well, even though Spike did not allow her acting gift to shine. Teyonah was great as Lysistrata. I was impressed by her performance.
Tyler: Exactly, that’s what I was saying. She did well in spite of the fact that she wasn’t really given a chance to shine as she has previously. Teyonah was pretty good. She carried a presence that provided good contrast with some of the other main actors. I also thought Wesley Snipes was underutilized, but he was good (as usual). He was not as prominent in the film as I would have expected. That was a bit surprising to me.
Since we’re talking about actors. What are your overall thoughts on Nick Cannon?
Ekemini: No comment.
Bradford: GUYS I thought Nick Cannon was fine! But I think Teyonah was the real star of that cast. As you know, Spike and Kevin Willmott wrote most of the script in verse, an allusion to the source material’s poetry and hip hop. Writing in rhyme is challenging, and I don’t think every line of dialogue hits, at least on its own merits. I believe that Teyonah made her rhymes work, saying every line with conviction and emotional depth.
Ekemini: I’m being facetious. It’s hard for me to take Nick Cannon seriously because he has always played comedic roles. It’s hard for me to see him in any other role that doesn’t fall in line. I struggled to believe that he was a gangsta rapper. I don’t think that’s an indictment on his acting skills. That’s more or less a reflection of my struggle to take him out of the box I have kept him in for so long.
Tyler: I can forgive most of Cannon’s performance. But that song…
Bradford: That song… oh man, that song. Let’s talk about the music of Chi-Raq for a moment, because I think it reflects the unevenness we felt throughout the film. You have music that is absolutely beautiful, like Jennifer Hudson’s Gospel ballad “I Run,” used as the background to her character cleaning the spilled blood of her daughter from the summer curb.
Tyler: And then you have that song…
Bradford: Then you have Nick Cannon — never really known for high quality emceeing — starting the film off with this:
And y’all mad ‘cause I don’t call it Chicago
But I don’t live in no fuckin’ Chicago, boy I live in Chi-Raq.
Unsurprisingly, he is not from, nor does he live in Chicago. Hmm. Maybe this is one reason why (actual Chicago-bred artist) Chance the Rapper didn’t appreciate the movie?If Chicago natives don’t endorse and support the film then why do so many film critics have positive reviews for it?
Ekemini: Yes, Cannon’s dismissive and condescending retort in that song unsettled me. That was the film’s opening song and it set the tone for the entire movie.
Tyler: Vic Mensa, too! He actually appeared in the beginning of the film interestingly enough, but wasn’t feeling the film, to say the least.
Ekemini: Perhaps he included Mensa in an effort to legitimize the movie. Mensa being a Chi-town native adds credibility and approval for the film. Just a guess. If that was his aim, I don’t think he did so successfully given the backlash.
Bradford: Any endorsement Vic had for the film didn’t last long. He went in on Spike and the movie on Twitter.
Tyler: So, if Chicago natives don’t endorse and support the film — we don’t have an exact poll or anything, but generally they don’t — then why do so many film critics have positive reviews for it?
Ekemini: The critics don’t live in that environment and are not under the threat of violence. There is a cultural and sociological chasm that grants them the luxury of critiquing the film, which renders them unable to fully grasp the gravity and nature of what is happening in Chicago. Folks on the ground live with the consequences of the violence, and now they also have to contend with the caricature of their city thanks to Chi-Raq.
Bradford: Tyler, that’s a good question. To give a snapshot, Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics,” as of this writing, gave it an 84% Fresh score. (Meanwhile, Chi-Raq’s Audience score, a crowdsource of user reviews, received a 54%.) While RT is not perfect (thanks, Luke!), based on this back-of-napkin statistical measure, it’s rated one of Spike’s best works.
Tyler: Ekemini brings up a good point. It also feels like many of the critics I’ve read treat Spike’s presentation of Chicago’s struggles as new information. Like, Oh finally, somebody is speaking about this!
Bradford: Which, I think, shows a real disconnect from the city and its issues.
Ekemini: And for film critics to say it’s one of his best films, it really makes me wonder if they have truly explored the breadth and depth of Spike’s work. That type of praise for Chi-Raq given Spike’s excellent work as a filmmaker (particularly in the ‘90s) is odd to me.
Bradford: I don’t think it’s merely incidental that film criticism, especially the “top critics” designated by RT, is written largely by white people, with very few brown and black writers.
Ekemini: You know, as we are discussing the disparity between the way the mostly white film critics received Chi-Raq versus the way some black people (self-included) reacted to the film, it reminds me of the disparate views on gun control between white and black people. Inner city gun violence gets lost in the gun control talks even though there is a higher rate of firearm deaths than there are mass shootings like Sandy Hook and San Bernardino. Gun control talks are only elevated when the latter take place. Sadly, the former is eclipsed and largely ignored. Here is my point: Like many (not all) who are against gun control laws, film critics are neither directly nor indirectly impacted by the gun violence in Chicago. Therefore, they are afforded the luxury of opining from an ivory tower without the possibility of experiencing the reality of living under the threat of such violence. Black residents in Chicago, like many black people in this country, have a different disposition towards guns because we have seen the deleterious effect that they have on our communities. Black people make up 13% of the population, yet we account for 55% of gun homicides according to this Pew Research Center study. Chi-Raq is not a movie that the black residents can turn on and off and go about their merry way afterward. They simply do not have that luxury; this is their reality. Our contrasting worldviews seem to be the determining factor in how we view this film. Do you guys have any thoughts about my hypothesis?As we are discussing the disparity between the way the mostly white film critics received Chi-Raq versus the way some black people reacted to the film, it reminds me of the disparate views on gun control between white and black people.
Bradford: What Ekemini is saying has real implications for film critique. There’s just not as much at stake for the typical film critic working at a prestige publication. They’re usually white and middle class, and discussing black stories with minimal implications about their own representation in the film. There seems to be an important set of criteria — questions like “What does this say about the dignity and culture of the people it represents?” and “How does that affect the plot’s viability and entertainment value for its target audience?” — that are largely missing.
Tyler: Yes, this is a key consideration when considering artistic merit. For some, Chi-Raq is not satire but a film that represents the holistic picture of gun violence in Chicago simply because it is told from a “black perspective.” Much of this does seem outside the scope of what a film critic can answer, so are we asking too much of the critics who believe that this film is “saying something”? Should they just leave this to the black writers to tackle?
Bradford: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that white film critics shouldn’t assess art that’s not really about them. But I want more acknowledgement about how our identities and upbringings contribute to the toolset we use to gauge art. It’s the journalistic version of “we all see through a glass lit dimly.” Diverse writing and editorial staffs are important here. It provides a necessary check that can help a writer — including a film critic — become aware of their own limitations. That can then, I hope, produce criticism imaginative enough to examine the cultural lens used to interpret film because of the pushback received from colleagues with a different set of eyes.
Tyler: Guys, we should also address Spike’s strange usage of a pedophile, right?
Bradford: Do tell, Tyler!
Ekemini: Well, you didn’t dance around that pink elephant, Tyler! Tyler, you are referring to R. Kelly being on the soundtrack?
Tyler: Yes, at the very beginning of this film, we hear R. Kelly singing the song “Put the Guns Down” from the movie soundtrack.
Ekemini: I suppose he added R. Kelly to the soundtrack to lend additional credibility to the film because Kelly is a Chicago native.
Tyler: But considering the explicit sexualization of the characters in this movie, his inclusion strikes me as… ironic? Hypocritical? Maddening??
Bradford: All I have to say is this: If you want to preach to me about black-on-black crime in Chicago, don’t you use a black man that went to predominantly black schools to prey on and, eventually, sexually assault black girls.
Ekemini: I think that it was fundamentally flawed and simultaneously reckless for Spike to include him on the soundtrack. I can’t get over the hypocrisy of Kelly singing “Put your guns down” and advocating for peace when he wielded his body as a weapon in the form of pedophilia against underage black women in and around Chicago.
Bradford: That’s black on black crime too, Spike! That counts!
Ekemini: I have often lamented the times when black folks turn a blind eye to sexual abuse of any kind for the sake of the gifts, talents, and charisma of the abuser. We see it with R. Kelly, and we see it when people defend Bill Cosby. Today, Kanye West tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!!!”
Bradford: I keep coming back to film critics. How did so many critics not think to even ask if telling black people to stop harming each other pairs well with R. Kelly?
Ekemini: Yes, but that is not something I would expect people outside of our community to pick up. I do, however, expect Spike Lee of all people to see the contradiction. If he failed to make the connection, there is no way I could, in good conscience, expect a white film critic to make that connection.
Ekemini: Which again, goes to your point about the need for diverse writing staff.
Tyler: Two thoughts:
- Yes I think the bigger fail here is Spike’s for accommodating this sexual violence on our own people.
- How would people outside our community not know about R. Kelly? After HuffPost Live and the memes and the videos, are people still unaware?
Ekemini: I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t know too many white people who are checking for R. Kelly like that. I’d imagine that they know about 12 Play and Chocolate Factory which had the song “Step in the Name of Love” on it, but that is probably the extent of their knowledge of his music. (No, that is not all white people.) When that Huffington Post interview came out, I only saw my black friends sharing that.As we think about a movie like Chi-Raq from a Christian lens, considering our neighbor’s dignity should push us to be careful in our analysis.
Tyler: Maybe I missed it, but I was certain most people know about the issues with Kells.
Ekemini: Also, his sexual impropriety is not taken as seriously by the masses and within our own community. I think this is the case because he got off and it has been joked about ad nauseam. As a result, I think people have begun to categorize it as such.
Bradford: It seems like it’s safe to say deep, holistic thinking on what it means to exist as individuals and communities living and walking in the dignity God has instilled in all of us is sorely lacking — both in the execution of the film and its critical reception.
Tyler: I would heartily agree.
Ekemini: You hit the nail on the head with that, Bradford. We don’t take the time to think how this impacts my neighbor. We don’t even ask “Who is my neighbor?”
Ekemini: For all the flack that we are giving Spike, I will admit that I truly believe he had noble intentions when he set out to make Chi-Raq. I think that he was out of his depth and did a disservice to himself, the people of Chicago, and black people as a whole.
Tyler: I would say that as we think about a movie like Chi-Raq from a Christian lens, considering our neighbor’s dignity should push us to be careful in our analysis. We should not assume that this portrayal is holistic without confronting our blind spots, challenging our presuppositions, and listening carefully to native residents. Just like Christ didn’t approach every village or city the same way, we should not assume we understand Chicago from a film like this or from its media portrayal, for that matter
Ekemini: As he made explicitly clear in the film, love is the answer, and we know that the Scriptures say that love never fails. But if we say everything, we end up saying nothing. In so doing, Spike inadvertently strips love of its rich and multifaceted meaning because he never showed us how this love ought to be expressed in practical and meaningful ways. Ultimately, what saddens me about this film is that, as our friend Kevin McLenithan shared with me on a podcast about the film, it truly was a “noble failure.” But it didn’t have to be.