Chi-Raq and the New Black Cinema

Spike Lee’s “joints” (films) are often equal parts brilliant and problematic. The auteur of one of the greatest of all American films, Do The Right Thing, Lee has also been responsible for a host of other films that span the gamut from great to wretched.

His latest, Chi-Raq, will not be to everyone’s tastes, but it very much was to mine. A loose telling of the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a satire about a group of women who end a war by going on a sex strike, Chi-Raq is a deliberately anti-naturalistic transposition of the same narrative to the gang wars of modern inner-city Chicago.

Although filled with farcical moments and ludicrous images (some of which come off better than others) at root, Chi-Raq is a film with a serious message. Depending on your sensibilities, it might help or harm that message for it to be presented in a such a highly theatrical manner. Either way, you’ll at least appreciate a stellar cast anchored in its most somber moments by Chicago natives John Cusack (playing a fictionalized version of a real life white, Afrocentric Catholic priest) and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (who plays a role painfully close to her own life story as the survivor of the horrific loss of her family to violence).

Aside from the content, let’s talk presentation. The film is presented largely in verse, features a Greek Chorus in the form of Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Rudy Ray Moore, and features big ridiculous set pieces including a reality show-style “sex off” and an attempt to disrupt the takeover of a military compound with the use of “slow jams” R&B classics. So you have to have a high tolerance not just for the ridiculous but for the corny (not to mention a high tolerance for Lee’s customarily iffy take on sexual politics).

Personally, however, I loved the fact that Lee was stepping out of the box. Although I’ve heard it described as a “black film for white people,” I think that description does both the film and the audience a disservice. In my own opinion it had a uniquely black American sensibility, and while it wasn’t exactly geared towards the mainstream black audience, that’s largely a function of the fact that it wasn’t geared towards a mainstream audience of any race. The fact that it was based on an ancient play from the classic Western canon didn’t make it any less the unique vision of a proudly black director. I respect him for making the film he wanted to make, and I, for one, enjoyed it.

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