Spike Lee directing on the set of Chi-Raq
Chi-Raq is a very funny movie. Measured on a belly laughs-per-minute scale, this is one of Spike Lee’s most successful pieces of work. The laughter is critical given the gravity of the subject matter here, and Lee’s ability to balance the two without sacrificing either is impressive and captivating.
But gauged on its broader merits, and in the context of a nationwide struggle by black Americans against an abusive criminal justice system, the film is tough to swallow. It espouses a heavyhanded respectability politics that threatens to drown out its many bright spots: A gracefully bawdy treatment of sex, a rollicking achievement in adapting ancient Greek verse to modern Chicago swagger, and a bevy of strong individual performances.
Lee seems to want to talk sternly and directly to a younger generation of black people who share his political awareness but often dissent from his analysis of where change should begin. But it’s hard to start a conversation with a slap in the face. And even though the film is nowhere near the grating, one-dimensional picture that trailers made it appear, it will be hard for the folks Lee wants to reach to hear Chi-Raq as dialogue rather than lecture.
That shouldn’t be the case, Lee says, noting his own personal participation in rallies and protests of recent years.
“I’m in support of Black Lives Matter,” Lee told me before the film’s release. “At the same time, I’m not gonna be silent when a 9-year-old, Tyshawn Lee, gets executed after being lured into an alleyway. I don’t think I’m doing Black Lives Matter if I’m only gonna talk about the cops and George Zimmerman and not talk about what we’re doing to ourselves.”
Chi-Raq does explicitly tip its hat to the movement that’s finally drawn mass attention to how frequently black bodies get gunned down in circumstances that would probably have gone differently for a white person.