Chi-Raq marks a low point for Spike Lee in a career that I didn’t think could get much lower. After a series of disappointing films (Red Hook Summer, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), I had hope that Chi-Raq might be a return to form for a director who cut his teeth on stories about contemporary Black America. Unfortunately, I didn’t just find Chi-Raq to be abysmal, but this film made me call into question Lee’s entire back catalog.
I realized, in the days after viewing Chi-Raq, that Lee has never created fully realized female characters. His films routinely reduce women to sexual objects. In fact, the only female characters with a hint of depth or humanity are those played by his sister, as if he can only see humanity in a woman of his same lineage. In his greatest triumphs like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and School Daze, we (myself included) glossed over his tacit misogyny in order to focus on the exquisite filmmaking. There is no such filmmaking here, and the lack of even a hint of cinematic quality reveals Chi-Raq as a repository of racist and sexist attitudes.
In Chi-Raq, Lee doesn’t even bother to give his female characters jobs, interests or, in several cases, names. The women here are reduced to walking vaginas and wailing mothers. In Lee’s view of Chicago, all black people are interested in two things: f*#!ing and killing. Lee perpetuates negative stereotypes about black people and leans into them with such ferocity that it seems like there must be a twist coming. I mean, he can’t possibly make the climax (pun intended) of the film … a sex off? In a comedy bereft of humor, the joke is on us.
Joel Coen has described directing as “tone management.” I’m not sure I fully agree, but if that is the case, Lee fails miserably as Chi-Raq ping pongs between a child’s funeral, a cartoon, Confederate-obsessed general, an over-the-top horndog mayor and a supposedly heartfelt plea to pray for a city that is drowning in violence. I actually felt embarrassed for the actors at times, particularly in the closing scenes, where the characters have decided to put on what looks like a school assembly to resolve all of Chicago’s issues in one fell swoop.
There are many egregious sins in Chi-Raq, but perhaps the most damning is the fact that young black men and boys, the ones who are in equal measure the victims and perpetrators of this horrific violence, are nowhere to be found. Nick Cannon is 35 and Wesley Snipes is old enough to be his dad. The people Lee is supposedly trying to reach with this film aren’t even represented. I don’t expect a film to solve deep issues of race and class that have crippled our country for centuries, but I do expect a filmmaker who once had vision to bring more humanity to his own people than Spike Lee has in Chi-Raq.