Chi-Raq as a Documentary (if even possible)?

I’d like to expand a bit on the notion of scope I briefly mentioned in class today with regard to the continuity–structurally and of Lee as a director–between 4 Little Girls and Chi-Raq. If anyone read my previous post about drill rappers responding to the latter, you may have gathered that Chi-Raq personally left a bad taste in my mouth. Much like rapper Lil Bibby, my initial and final criticism of the film which I noted in my post was how much this film should have been a documentary rather than the strange, in-cohesive hybrid between socially imperative text and the adaptation of a Greek tragedy. I don’t mean to suggest that Lee or any director should be artistically constrained in any way, but I felt that had Lee dropped the satirical duality and simply created a documentary about Chicago, his film would have carried more gravity, urgency, and intensity, and perhaps may have lead to some constructive national attention about the problems in Chicago rather than media controversy about the film itself.

My initial viewing of 4 Little Girls only emphasized this reaction, for here was the type of emotional and social gravity I felt that Chi-Raq lacked. The film manages to tell a thoughtful, coherent story even without a contextualizing narrative from Lee–rather than embedding his voice directly into the film, Lee wholly minimizes his personal input and allows those who have experienced it to tell the full story. Because Lee involves an expansive but not overwhelming cast of characters from different angles of the situation, the documentary simultaneously feels both deep and informative, but also highly intimate with its subjects. Therein lies why 4 Little Girls is so effective on an emotional and informational level–Lee contextualizes and conveys the full social and political weight of such a vastly turbulent time in American history, but expresses it through the profoundly personal experiences of several individuals. That powerful merger of micro and macro levels of experience in turn creates a riveting documentary.

My reaction was to lament that Lee did not seek to recreate that type of experiential structure with Chi-Raq–if he could accomplish so much simply by talking to those involved and bringing in some other footage and music, why couldn’t the same effectiveness be replicated? Could he not have sidestepped the Greek tragic elements and interviewed a combination of gang-affiliates, children observing the situation, older members of the community, and city officials? Does that story not write itself?

But it wasn’t long before I began to rethink the simplicity of these ingredients for a documentary as powerful as 4 Little Girls. After all, although both films would speak to a vast, expansive issue within America (racially-motivated crimes, and gun violence), 4 Little Girls is unique in that frames and expresses those larger issues through a single, tragic event. Therefore, Lee’s ability to construct an intimate story is by virtue of the limited cast of individuals directly related to that event, given that they are families of only four victims. When I consider it now, Chi-Raq cannot possess that type of ease into the documentary structure, as the incidents of violence have become so disturbingly, increasingly regular–there is no one specific, cataclysmic event that Lee could use to focus his pool of interview subjects to contextualize the larger social forces at work. If Lee were dropped in Chicago with his camera, where and how and with whom would he even begin to coherently explore what is happening in Chicago? I feel this also speaks to the invisibility of the Chicago problem in the American media–perhaps if some particular incident were ever publicized, Lee might have had a logical point to begin documenting things.

Overall, I feel that Lee was caught between a rock and a hard place–the Greek adaptation lens clearly wasn’t well-received, yet I feel that a true documentary of Chicago might have been impossible from a narrative standpoint given the scale of the issue. I feel some empathy for Lee–perhaps his empathy for the situation was so strong he had no choice but to proceed with some kind of representation to gain attention for Chicago, even with a flimsy, uneven approach.


  1. Lee definitely could have side-stepped the Greek bs. There are a lot of people in Chicago that have left the game and will be willing to talk about their experiences. He could have interviewed the mothers and documented their pain and suffering from losing their child or taken many other approaches.

    1. I definitely see where you’re coming from. My point with the post was that the issues in Chicago are so widespread compared to other places. For example, if Lee wanted to make a documentary about police violence in New York City, he could have a very convenient entry point with the community of Eric Garner to facilitate that larger conversation. With Chicago, he would really have to do some serious research and put together these stories himself since the media hasn’t already done so. But still, I completely agree that the people and resources are there if that was the route he wanted to attempt with this film. Maybe his urge to make the Greek tragedy was more artistically important to him as a filmmaker anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s