Chi-raq is the product of an ambitious and distinct vision, director Spike Lee has never been lacking there. As a film it has both operatic and satirically playful qualities, the lines delivered in verse - at least, occasionally you hear a half-rhyme that reminds you that it’s supposed to be! The performances are pretty great too, with brassy alpha-female Teyonah Parris and fly-ass narrator Samuel L Jackson setting the bar high.
Where the film ultimately falls down, however, is in the constant shifts in tone and the disjointedness that this creates. One scene might be constructed as if from a cloying tearjerker; the next has the whimsy of a Greek farce (a reflection of the play by Aristophanes on which the film is based); the next is a Blaxploitation riff and has Wesley Snipes in a bejewelled eye-patch, firing quips about how he wants 'that booty'.
I am all for eccentricity. I like stories that don’t fit inside the box. On the face of it, the premise of a community of women withholding sex until their men make peace sounds like great material. But when that simple idea is needlessly embellished, pumped full of style, and drawn-out to breaking point, the result is something, dare I say it, self-indulgent. Had Spike Lee pared this screenplay down by half (he could easily have cut out the portentous polemic from John Cusack’s character, for a start) he would have been left with the bare bones of the narrative and tighter, less flabby, pacing.
Chi-Raq has the right sentiment. It is absolutely inadmissible that gang violence is routinely swept under the rug and constructive community projects in high-poverty areas are perpetually underfunded. That message is pretty clear even from the opening lyrics, though. After two hours of it being repeatedly shoved down my throat, I had started to wonder if my time would have been better spent watching the brilliant documentary ’13th’ again, in hope of learning something direct about the African-American experience.
Spike Lee doesn’t spoon feed you, he puts you on a diatribe drip so you don’t even have to swallow. There is something particularly uncomfortable about a white priest (John Cusack) lecturing a 99% POC congregation on how bad they’ve got it. Oh, and I' sorry to be a party pooper, but I 'm pretty dubious that real women who live in these situations have the social capital or opportunities to escape the neighbourhood or their dependence on the cycle of dirty money. If they’re not living off ‘the game’, they may be ‘on the game’.
Whilst there is some fun to be had, Chi-Raq is lacking in discipline. With a little focus, some professional lyricists, and a rethink on pacing, it could master any one of the tones it tries to span.