Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq Fails at Being Satirical, Wins at Being Offensive

By: Michael Arceneaux

Last month, Spike Lee recorded a video response to critics of the trailer for his latest film, Chi-Raq. In the eyes of the acclaimed director, “a lot of people are judging the film on a two minute and thirty second trailer.” Lee subsequently released a separate, more somber trailer for the movie being sold as “satire,” only his recent press had done little to alleviate fears that he was essentially going to make a shit-show out of the very serious situation that is the ongoing violence in Chicago.

This includes Lee telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he’s “all for Black Lives Matter,” but “we as a people can’t be blind to” black-on-black crime. To Lee, “We cannot be out there” protesting police violence “and then when it comes to young brothers killing themselves, then mums the word.” This stale argument continued with Lee concluding, “No one’s saying nothing? It’s got to be both ends.”

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Such a response from Spike Lee of all people delighted conservative media outlets like Breitbart. If there’s anything an uninformed conservative loves more than a talking point that deflects from clear instances of racism, it’s such a talking point flying out of the mouth of a black person.

Then there is Lee’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in which he takes the central theme of Chi-Raq – using sexual abstinence as an anti-violence tool – and argued it can also help thwart problems on college campuses. “I think a sex strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment or date rapes,” Lee explained to Stephen Colbert as he went on to predict that such strikes will happen in the “second semester.”

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The problem with both arguments is that they each speak to unforgivable levels of naïveté, sexism, and ignorance. Between the trailer and Lee’s round of press, those who harbored fears Chi-raq was going to be an awful, awful film, deserve a certain pat on the back for correctly clocking what was to come.

Chi-raq serves as a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Here, Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, the girlfriend of Chicago gang leader Chi-Raq (played by Nick Cannon), who persuades other frustrated women to abstain sex until the men call a truce to the senseless gang violence ravaging Chicago. The end result is Chi-raq reducing women to vaginas, and men, brainless fools who literally can be controlled by their libido. Both sexes deserve better than that.

Moreover, it puts the onus of ending what is presented as male-led violence on women. Just like when Lee tried to tell Colbert that women could combat sexual assault by withholding sex. Someone ought to explain to him what rape means and that rapists are not concerned about their victim’s consent.

What’s also interesting about this movie is that while Lee can critique the Black Lives Matter movement, he fails to note that women – notably queer women – helped found this very movement. I suppose such acknowledgement might’ve compelled Lee to deviate from his tale of combating violence by reducing women to sexual objects (while giving heteronormativity yet another unnecessary close-up).

That said, Lee does acknowledge the socioeconomic factors behind much of the violence in the Chicago neighborhoods he depicts in Chi-Raq. Problem is, it comes largely courtesy of the nearly cartoonish-like white pastor played by John Cusack.

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I don’t take issue with Lee wanting Black people to be proactive about bettering their communities. What I hate, though, is how banal this movie is in discussing complicated issues. He only makes it worse by pretending this movie has something interesting to add when that simply isn’t the case.

Many of us have great reverence of Spike Lee’s career, but that does not excuse the reality that if this is the sort of social commentary he has to offer now, it’s best he stick to Inside Man, historical biopics, and documentaries because he’s out of touch, out of depth, and no longer can help move the conversation forward.

I sat in a theater full of white people watching this movie and I was embarrassed and frustrated by their amusement of the inauthentic dialogue uttered by its purported young characters. Dialogue, mind you, delivered in a distractingly and seemingly clever but not at all rhythmic way. Lee used to be the filmmaker who made them uncomfortable when depicting our lives, not the other way around.

Chi-raq is also rather preachy and heavy-handed in tone, which while annoying on its own, was further complicated by Lee infusing music from R. Kelly into it. You’re shoving your morality down my throat with that man playing in the background? Hardy har.

I’m lost on what was actually supposed to be satirized in this movie, but what I do know is that I haven’t hated a movie this much in a very long time. Funny enough, the film ends with Samuel L. Jackson, who played the narrator possibly inspired by a blaxploitation movie heroes, commanding that we “wake up.”

I’d much rather go to sleep and pretend Chi-raq never happened.