Chi-Raq | The Merits of Realness

“Chi-Raq” is, without a doubt, the film I discussed the most outside of class. From deep conversations with classmates to rants with anyone who would listen, I spent so much time complaining talking about this movie. However, I never got around to blogging about it because I honestly didn’t think it was worth my time. This review accurately sums up almost all of my initial thoughts. However, with a few weeks of reflection, I’ve decided to attempt to formulate my rant in a productive way that seeks to explore and understand the real work of “Chi-Raq”.

chi-raq.jpg

My biggest issue with “Chi-Raq” was intensified after seeing Lee’s other work. Watching “Four Little Girls” and then “When the Levees Broke” highlighted Lee’s abilities to powerfully execute these emotionally charged films, and spotlight the absence of the work I wanted to be done in “Chi-Raq”. Of course, shedding light on gun violence is so important, and I was disappointed because I thought “Chi-Raq” and its messages would be immediately dismissed by audiences due to the format/plot. A documentary style film would’ve done justice to the families affected by violence in Chicago while also providing a space for further brainstorming for solutions. This argument was met with the idea that these two styles are apples and oranges and shouldn’t be compared. But it’s hard to overlook Lee’s body of work and ability to engage these incredibly important subjects.

Director Spike Lee is greeted by Father Michael Pfleger during a mass at Saint Sabina Church in Chicago

In the spirit of remaining optimistic, I found that the best parts of “Chi-Raq” were the moments that utilized the “real”. I was moved by John Cusack’s performance, and then upon learning that his character was based off a real figure from Chicago, Father Mike Pfleger, I soon realized why. Lee calls Pfleger the “point guard” and “facilitator” behind Chi-Raq, and including these real elements did help (somewhat) to salvage the film. The film requires the presence of the real to add the gravity necessary to recognize the weight of these problems.

Jennifer hudson

This necessity for the real is underscored by Jennifer Hudson’s performance. Chi-Raq’s audience likely has knowledge of the heartbreaking loss of Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew due to gun violence. This makes Hudson’s character all the more intense and emotional. Lee finally offers a space for the voices of real victims to be heard, even if it is in a fictional setting.

These few, effective moments of the “real” force me to continue to question what the film would be if it had been a documentary. However, they do allow me to accept “Chi-Raq” for what it is and appreciate the “bright spots”. These moments of real ground the viewer and do shed light on the crucial matters at hand. Even if “Chi-Raq” was not executed as I had hoped, it did still bring these issues to the forefront and facilitate important conversations.

3 comments

  1. I totally identify with your initial feelings about Chi-Raq: there was no film that I talked about more outside of class, often with a lot of intensity. There was, and is, so much in it that is frustrating, and at the beginning I too wished he had done a documentary about it. But after our class discussions, and especially after Iris’s comments on my earlier blog post about Celebrating Black Women, I started to think about what I could get out of Chi-Raq besides my frustration. My final project, on the hybrid form of the film and what kind of potential it opens up, is me grappling with that: https://spikeleejoints.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/hybrid-potentials-in-chi-raq/ . Not to plug myself, but I think that it’s an interesting, complex thing to take a film we so viscerally disliked and try to see beyond that.

  2. I was actually really disappointed by Jenner Hudson’s performance, specifically when she initially finds her daughter dead. I thought the contrived rythmic dialogue detracted from the moment completely. The only reason I like her in the film is because of her connection with such violence in her personal life

  3. I think you and I could not be more in agreement that we were disappointed with Lee’s decision to make a satire to draw attention to the emergency in Chicago. Considering Lee reduced us to a puddle of tears in his documentation of the Birmingham church bombing in “Four Little Girls” and of Hurricane Katrina in “Levees,” I think he could have spared the dramatic flare in this last-ditch effort to get people talking about the impending death of the Southside. I admire his brazen, political commentary, but I think his focus on governmental idiocy in “Levees” was much more impactful.

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