Squashed Joint: 'Chi-Raq''s Glaring Inelegance
The New Iraq
With all the subtlety of a jackhammer driving into concrete, Chi-Raq (2015) arrives on the screen. Spike Lee’s Joint embodies the notion that if it’s obvious, shoot it (as in film it). There’s shooting alright. In fact, there’s enough gunplay involved to rival Westerns or war films. The shifts between comedic levity and dramatic heft give the film a jarring quality. Lee’s best work is as a documentarian, especially in the films Four Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke (2006). He shines with the filmed productions of A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) and Passing Strange: The Movie (2009). Here, as with most of his dramatic features, Lee’s ham-handed direction and downright goofy writing (along with Kevin Willmott) renders a portrait of pain played for laughs. Instead of delivering lines of nuance and substance, Lee and company display a crass style.
The performances seem at least inspired. Nick Cannon's eponymous character Chi-Raq is a brutish, coarse figure. His mediocre acting skills display a somewhat gruff exterior and simpleton demeanor and give the role a believable sense. The Greek chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) offers a snappy, exuberant turn. Wesley Snipes as Cyclops is a sneering, self-assured player/gangster. Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, brings a kinetic, energetic idealism to the fore. Her sassiness shines as she leads her fellow band of women in their crusade to end the initiation of physical force. How do they pull off such feat? By denying their male counterparts sexual congress. Like the play, the women withhold any intercourse during the course of the strike. An aid to this particular action is Miss Helen played by Angela Bassett. Her character anchors the film with a sense of dignity and power.
The Concept of Love
A refreshing twist on the dialogue, Chi-Raq is replete with verse. The actors and actresses deliver their lines with a gusto and a simultaneous, grim glee. Words set to rhyme elicit a sort of hip-hopera or poetic vibe. To the the unaccustomed viewer with an untrained ear for Lee’s topical, slangy verbiage, the content might tend to overwhelm.
The concept of love conquering all has been at the centerpiece of Lee’s work at least since Do the Right Thing (1989) where Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) illustrates the fight between Hate and Love. What is missing is the awareness of reason as applied to the problem of starting brute force. Love is a response to the values you find in another person. In order for that love to be expressed, one must first possess rationality to fully appreciate, respect, and admire someone else. Love is the result of reason, not the precursor. In order for towns like Chicago to rid themselves of the irrational actions of roving groups armed to the teeth with the latest arsenal, individuals ought to arm themselves with a proper philosophy. As heavy-handed as this picture is, the messages which Lee conveys seem to only numb the viewer by being beat over the head with persistent yammering. One constant that remains throughout Lee's other work set in the present day, is the proliferation of his invented alcoholic beverage "Da Bomb" which he uses as a motif for self-destruction and moral degradation. Such a small detail indicates at least a modicum of refinement on Lee's part.
Whenever the jokes fly, then some shots ring out and then there’s a shot of protesters around the globe forming in solidarity to the Chicago cause. For all its ebullient flair, the film lacks cohesiveness. The editing is choppy and some scenes ought to have been left on the cutting room floor. Lee’s ineptitude shows when actor Isiah Whitlock, who plays Bacchos, says his classic, drawn out scatological expletive. All Lee had to do was cast this credible actor (again) and let him not utter the phrase which appears in four other Joints. It’s like he’s making it up as he goes along. His tendency to intersperse jokes along with serious drama decreases the effect of experiencing either one. What Lee ought to work on is the smooth juxtaposition of light-hearted humor with devastating drama.
And the time issue is rather serious. The references to events which took part in the early and middle parts of 2015 date the film severely. At best, upon future viewings of the picture, those interested in the specific names dropped in the film might research them. But they would have to get around all of the desperate attempts at establishing a coherent theme. Like the movie Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996), the messages mount up at a rapid pace.
A Spike Lee Disappointment
To Preserve Life
And as per his most recent projects, Lee injects Chi-Raq with mystical overtones. He implies that with enough helpings of Jesus’ agape love, the streets would be clear of unthinking factions bent on death and disorder. This viewpoint flies in the face of a rational solution. Faith is the antithesis of reason and is the corollary of force. For groups to lay down their arms, the fight ought not be for the saving of souls for heaven, but for the support of freeing minds while on this earth. The sermon that John Cusack's character, Father Mike Corridan, issues out during the funeral of a young girl gunned down is sincere but offers very little in the way of addressing the deeper implications of gang warfare. The character becomes a mouthpiece for Lee and Willmott. They impart about how the National Rifle Association (NRA) is in cahoots with the government. As they stand on their soapbox, the filmmakers state their frustrations for the number of murders in the Windy City.
But a somewhat poignant point in the film comes when actual families of those slain appear. Their presence serves as a vivid reminder that after all the uncomfortable giggles and message bearing, the fact remains that living, breathing individuals who enjoyed life and all it had to offer were gunned down throughout the years. Lee’s decision to include these persons ought to be respected. The mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and other related folk gather to commemorate the real lives which gang members extinguished. Though the film may be outrageous, zany, dark, and mostly graceless, it will get the attention of those who most need desperately, a chance to preserve life.