I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but Black folks have culture tickers in the back of our brains.
The tickers determine a point spread of cultural offerings against our actual, real world needs. When someone Black releases or is part of a film (or book, album or TV show) that directly purports to address the issues or lives of Black America, our tickers run a spread of points. The high number is what the issue is, in terms of importance to Black lives. The bottom number is where the current offering in question hits against the high number. Something that’s meant to be purely entertaining – like a Madea movie – drops into negative balance. Whether it’s a good film or not carries some weight, but isn’t the overriding factor. See, when you’re a Black film you don’t get to not hit the ticker. If you’re Black, you go on the ticker. Done deal. You don’t get to not be Black while being Black in this country. When you aim for Black issues? Oh, the tickers go into overdrive. My particular culture ticker model is the Culturetron 2000X (second only to the Paranoize XL1965, which comes with a customizable tin foil hat), complete with a retro JHClarke kit, some X-Clan 90 metaphizers, and a Tyson/Rock 300 rack suspension. It’s solar powered so it runs 24/7, and it prints on premium Papyrus brand papers. You don’t buy a rig like that off the shelf. That’s a total custom job, built from scratch. It is a machine designed to chew up and crank out numbers when something with the weight of a mainstream Spike Lee film seeks to address something that isn’t an athlete.
So naturally, my ticker was on fire when the trailer for Chi-Raq dropped. By the time I was walking out of the theater after having seen the end product, my ticker had burned out and smoke was coming out of my ears.
My issue with Chi-raq prior to its release was never that the issue of violence or crime could not be made fun of or satirized. My concerns were always whether or not a satire, especially one led by Lee and especially Lysistrata, could carry the weight of its truth in this political moment. I feared that he would give us scenes that were funny only to him, but uncomfortable to anyone else not married to this shitstorm of a film. I feared that he would muddy the bottom line of the issue, keeping whatever discussion might be had at the surface level or give them short shrift. I feared that he would attempt to jam in relevant bits of information, but spend no craft in their delivery, essentially wasting them. All of these fears were more than realized; they leapt from the screen in political 3D.
Chi-Raq feels like Spike Lee’s diary vomited onto a stack of his 40 Acres jerseys, and is clearly a project in which he could dump every bad idea he’s ever had for a movie while expressing his decrepit views on so-called black-on-black violence. Now, there are no perfect Spike Lee films. Lee has a penchant for sabotaging his own work, usually with a wrong-headed side story or shit casting or an errant showtune number that jettisons the viewer out of the film. This film is so riddled with disjointed narrative pieces that I felt like Spike was trying to see how bad a film he could make and still call it any effort at all. Half way through I felt like I was being subjected to the Black hack version of Funny Games.
The question as to whether or not this particular play could carry the weight of the truth of what’s happening in Chicago (and the many, many places like it) appears to have never been considered. It should have been. The whole exercise ended up feeling less like an investigation of the reasons why such violence exists and more like a reason for Spike to get Samuel L. Jackson to play Senor Love Daddy again and say “pussy” a hundred times. While possessing so much so-called power, the women in the film are completely flat, mere stereotypes thrust into a ridiculous situation beneath even the source material’s intent. Satire is supposed to still be able to point a genuine finger at what it’s lampooning. Lee tries to accomplish this by having Jennifer Hudson cry a half dozen times to her own song. And for all the women in this film, their realities outside of being pieces of meat are practically non-existent. I’d say that the time that would have been spent on fleshing out the women in this film was instead spent fleshing out the men, but it wasn’t: Wesley Snipes has a total of about eight minutes of screen time, half of which he spends playing a one-eyed Fat Albert character. Nick Cannon, despite portraying the titular character, also suffers from long stretches of absence bordering on anemic. Somehow we learn almost nothing about any of the lead characters – and empathize even less – while still managing to fill two hours of reel. I think John Cusack’s preacher had more screen time than both of these characters. If someone goes back and discovers that’s true, don’t let me hear about it.
It became virtually impossible to take any aspect of this film seriously on any level with the hiring of Nick Cannon as the lead gangster. Mariah Carey’s Nick Cannon? Side character on a Kevin Hart TV show Nick Cannon? Wild Style Nick Cannon (which is the only Nick Cannon I like, for the record)? Drumline Nick Cannon? The host of fucking America’s Got Talent Nick Cannon? Fuck outta here, Spike. Knowing that Lee originally tried to get Kanye West to do the role only proves that Spike is more interested in generating publicity for bad movies than he is in generating good art with great movies. I get that you’re making something resembling a satire, but you did want us to take some of this seriously, right? You spent a lot of screen time on actual portraits of real dead Black people. You spent no small amount of time showing Jennifer Hudson crying on various street corners sans irony. Nick Cannon was a joke from top to bottom, which is too bad, because he was really trying to act and no one gives a fuck because Spike Lee directs like he’s having a coke dream.
I couldn’t believe the film was only two hours long. It felt all of three. Random wannabe music videos abound…really just scenes of actors trapped in eye-rolling behaviors set to shitty music. And this is easily the preachiest of Lee’s films, period, bar none, and two of his films were about ministers. Lee has achieved at least one success here: he has finally made his version of a Tyler Perry movie. And I hate to say it, but Spike needs to keep whatever criticism he has about Perry to himself moving forward because Chi-raq is a shit movie that if Tyler Perry had made it would have been better.
Real talk: you have no idea how hard it was for me to type that. NONE. I had to delete it, get up out of my chair, fist to mouth, and breathe hard, pace the room, and type that shit again. That line physically hurt to type. I am legally obligated to fuck Spike Lee up on sight for making me type that line after all the years I have spent kicking Tyler Perry in whatever balls he has hidden under that house dress.
The subject of this film – gang violence – is important, but Spike’s still having the version of this conversation from 1992. Even NWA’s film knew it had to come harder than “Why Black folks got to kill each other?!”, and they were gang affiliated. Spike is still throwing Black people under the bus a little here, and it all rings pretty hollow in light of the entire Black Lives Matter movement’s efforts over the last couple of years to highlight the roots of problems like what Lee describes here vis-à-vis the only-occasional John Cusack monologue. To make matters worse, the cops get off pretty light in this film, which, in light of the Laquan McDonald video having been made public, really makes this film seem late to the party and having brought the wrong dish. Chicago is getting roasted with protests constantly since the release of the footage featuring the murder of Laquan McDonald, and Spike releases some shit about gangs. Really, dawg? That’s the hill you’re going to die on with your $15 million dollar budget?
It bears noting that many white critics like this movie. Not many of them love it, but that would be asking a lot of them in the name of Spike Lee, whose best efforts are far behind him. A lot of them do like it though, and that’s fine. They have the luxury of seeing it as a film and only a film, of ascribing no political heft to it beyond what they occasionally see in the news whenever the media sees fit to cover it. I do not. This movie is about people like me, by someone like me. It is attempting to speak on our behalf to the world. That’s serious business whether you think it’s a satire or not. I think white critics are more enamored of the idea that a Black filmmaker read a book than whether or not he made a good film. In the era of Selma and 12 Years a Slave, he’s got a lot of fucking nerve, and so do they. It’s a shit movie. Even if I played white film critic and stripped every ounce of political relationship from this film it would still be a really bad movie. The casting is jarring, the writing is juvenile and the narrative is stitched with toilet paper care.
Mostly I want to know where all the people who were standing up on their chairs to shout out how deep this movie might be a month ago are. I want to know where the people who bought tickets to see this film are. Y’all are more rare than a non-shaky bootleg right now. I considered that maybe you saw the film and hoped no one would bring up all that shit you were talking a month ago once you saw it for yourself. Then I saw that the film has only grossed a million dollars in the week since it came out. And while that’s on a small number of screens, that’s still a flop and a half. So y’all haven’t even gone to see the disaster you were pressing pre-critics about. Guess what: I saw the movie. I told you what the movie was going to be before I saw it, then I shut up about it for a month. Then I paid to go see it. And I can tell you now, with all data on the table, I told you so. The only person that’s seen more Spike Lee movies than me is his wife. Don’t you ever question me about a Spike Lee movie again.
If your concern was that he was making light of the issues in Chicago, I wouldn’t say that was the problem here. If your concern was that you thought satire might not be appropriate considering the matter at hand, I’d offer that this isn’t good enough to be a satire, so you’re okay there too. What’s really wrong here is that, given the resources to speak to an important issue, one of our greats completely drops the ball and makes a horrible movie. That’s worse than all the other issues you may have had combined.