Every year there’s always that one black film that captures all the attention and controversy. One year it’s "Precious." Another year it’s "Selma." This year it’s "Chi-Raq" – a film I saw a few weeks ago.
However, this is not so much a review; instead, just my general impressions of the film. I’m sure other writers will chime in with their thoughts as well.
Whatever you may feel about the film – whether you intend to see it or not – you can’t deny that this is the first, in a long time, that Spike Lee has made, that’s got everyone talking about it. When was the last time that happened? It’s been too long.
And not surprisingly, the film is a bit of a mixed bag; yet I liked this film more than anything Spike has done in the past few years. Like Variety said in its review of "Chi-Raq," it’s "his most vital movie in years." Except I definitely would not say that about the ENTIRE film.
Yes, as you can guess, it’s somewhat unever, and also there are, here and there, scenes that go completely off the rails (two scenes in particular which I’ll discuss soon). And yet there are sequences in the film that really work, and are very effective. We know that Spike has a habit of giving into his worst impulses. As I’ve always said, when Spike is under a tough producer looking over his shoulder, he does some great work, like "Malcolm X," "The 25th Hour" or "The Inside Man." But when he’s the producer himself… WATCH OUT!
Spike has said that the film is a satire, which it really isn’t entirely, unless the definition of satire has changed lately.. It is a fable actually – almost allegorical at times – and, yes, there are some very funny moments in the film; although none of them, I should say, involve the violence in Chicago. It should not be surprising that the funniest bit in the entire film comes during a cameo by Dave Chappelle playing a strip club owner.
As a story, the film is sort of a helter skelter, involving several characters and how they’re either affected by, or take action to curb street violence in Chicago. There are some really good scenes. However, in others, Spike still uses that patented heavy handed approach of his, making the film rather tedious at times. And at 127 minutes, it’s too long for the material up on the screen. It would have played better if it was trimmed by some 15 minutes in so.
But the two weakest scenes in the movie, which I referenced earlier, are: one involving some over-the-top kinky sex farce with some cartoonish military general (named after James Earl Jones’ character in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – Am I the only one to notice that?), which starts off badly and gets worse. Then there’s a big climax which involves a sort of championship sex bout to be broadcast on live TV (you don’t see anything… unfortunately), which also starts off awkwardly and then abruptly ends with a WTF twist.
But the film continuously juxtaposes very awkward, clumsy scenes with more seriously effective ones. It’s a schizo film alright. But if you’re wondering if the film offers any concrete solutions to what’s happening, not only in Chicago, but in other cities across the country, look elsewhere, because Spike is not interested in giving answers; rather just telling, in his own unique way, what’s going on.
One good thing is that the much discussed rhyming dialogue actually works very well; at times clumsily, but it does work, approaching a near Shakespearean rhythm.
The performances are uneven. Teyonah Parris is stunning to look at, but her character, as written, isn’t fully fleshed out. Also one obvious sign that Spike is NOT from Chicago, is that any woman as gorgeous as Parris would not be living in Englewood, or in any neighborhood considered "Chi-Raq" for long. Women who look like her usually move up to better areas on the South Side or the North side, as soon as they can walk (I’ve already been criticized by some for saying that, but I stand by what I said).
However, Nick Cannon playing against type as a rapper/gang banger modeled, one can imagine, after the notorious Chicago rapper Chief Keef, is surprisingly good and obviously really gets into the role, maybe relived that he’s not doing his usual cornball shtick. Also good is John Cusack playing basically a character very clearly based on Chicago Catholic priest Father Pfleger (those in Chicago know who he is). His funeral sermon scene might be the most powerful and emotionally effective sequence in the entire film.
Harry Lennix, who comes in rather late in the film, is also pretty good, and has some good lines However, Wesley Snipes is totally wasted and underused as a rival gang leader. He’s miscast. Angela Bassett, as usual, overplays her part (Like i always say about her, she could overact brushing her teeth).
Jennifer Hudson wails, playing (what else?) the bereaved mother who is the most one-dimensional and underwritten character in the film.
However Sam Jackson as the narrator/Greek chorus of the film is actually very good, and has some really great lines. When he first appears, you cringe, thinking that it’s not going to work; but as the film progresses, he gets better, and Spike smartly doesn’t overuse him.
There is another glaring mistake which would make any one in Chicago laugh out loud. The film begins with an impressive crane shot, which starts above the Damen and Milwaukee subway station, and swoops down to street level, following a long line of black people getting into a rap club.
In reality, that neighborhood is right in the heart of young, smug, white yuppieville in Chicago. (Think Greenwich Village in NY, or West Hollywood/Melrose Ave in LA, but not as sophisticated). Believe me, there are no lines of black people waiting to get into a club, within ten miles of that area of town.
And, oh yeah, being a guy, I have to confess that I liked the sex scenes in the film too. And I didn’t catch any of those "standing still while moving" dolly shots either. I guess Spike has finally moved on from that.
So there you have it. Not a disaster, but not quite the big comeback for Spike of old that some were expecting; although it’s pretty much Spike’s film through and through.
But the question is, would I watch it again? And the answer is yes – something I definitely would not say that about "Red Hook Summer."