Perhaps the most interesting way Chi-Raq has manifested itself in the media is its polarization of viewers and critics. The film has a favorable reception of 82% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but a far lower score of 5.7/10 among users on IMDb, indicating a palpable discrepancy between audiences and critics. Perhaps critics tend to focus on the film’s high level of technical polish and strong character performances, while viewers may be more concerned with the volatile social implications that stem from the film’s tonal inconsistencies–indeed, the uneasy balance between musical and comedy elements with edgy, topical grounding in Chicago’s violence problem has been a constant source of media controversy.
My discussions with my blog group in class today at one point brought up that these tonal inconsistencies might be the result of Lee becoming somewhat out of touch with today’s youth–far from a product of the environment in Chicago, his stance and mission of satire have been heavily criticized by those who live that reality. As a hip-hop fan, over the past few months I frequently heard criticism of the film and Lee’s intentions voiced by the generation of popular rappers in Chicago. While popular artists like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa (despite making a likely regrettable cameo early in the film) have voiced their disapproval, much of the criticism comes from rappers of the drill sub-genre, which primarily focuses on the type of violent lifestyle Lee decries in the film. However, different artists have denounced the film for different reasons.
For this post, I have linked two videos with two prominent drill rappers voicing their opinions on the film: Lil Bibby and Lil Herb. While both criticize the film, the stark contrast of their motivations in disliking the film reveal the complexity of the social affect of living in Chicago today, and the tension between stopping and glorifying the violence among the youth.
Lil Bibby expresses many of the concerns I personally sensed while watching the film, but from the perspective of a Chicago native surrounding by the violence. It feels like a “parody” and while the movie was humorous, a more important mission would have been “making people cry.” Essentially, the film did not make enough of an attempt to accurately portray the chaos and tragedy of life in Chicago, which in turn would turn a national spotlight onto the attitudes of the youth, which Bibby notes are “sad.” Overall, the social impact of the film was “watered down” and lacked the gravitas it could have had.
Conversely, Lil Herb takes issue with the film’s “goofiness” not in that the humor understates the tragedy of Chicago’s reality, but rather that the depiction softens and inaccurately represents the “savage” lifestyle. He is quick to point out how in reality those around him would not “waste bullets” instead of firing them in the air as shown in the movie. He similarly notes the inaccurate portioning of ingredients when Nick Cannon’s character mixes a cup of lean–a drug popular among drill rappers and frequent imagery in videos–as another moment of appropriation and inauthenticity towards Chicago gang culture. He also mentions Nick Cannon as “flinching,” suggesting that the family-friendly superstar is unfit to correctly portray a violent criminal. Unlike Lil Bibby who seems concerned that the film does not do enough to bring attention to the violence so as to mobilize a public response, Lil Herb is unhappy that the film is simply inauthentic, with little regard for the positive social impacts the film might have otherwise had.
I feel that the comparison of these two viewpoints reflects just how tall of an order making this film without controversy would have been, but also the complexity of attitudes among Chicago youth. Lil Bibby illustrates many of the film’s shortcomings in actually producing a meaningful critique of the violent Chicago lifestyle, while Lil Herb’s thoughts imply a glorification of that lifestyle that Lee failed to capture on film. In a sense, Lee was destined to anger some quantity of people in either sense with his more imaginative approach. Perhaps a thoughtful, gritty documentary may have been the only solution, but clearly that does not reflect Lee’s more artful, lighthearted intentions with this film–all in all, it leaves me with the sense that a musical comedy grounded in a fictionalized “Chi-Raq” was an impossibility in terms of appealing to universal tastes.