Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-raq, is his best in years, which makes the fact that it’s so bad that much more frustrating. Lee set out to make a film about gun violence in black communities, about his belief that such violence has been overlooked in recent discussions around police violence, and about what he thinks black people ought to do in order to end the violence that plagues our neighborhoods. Most of the trademark Spike Lee elements are there—his intimate camerawork, his humorous, if choppy dialogue—and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be pleased to find them. But Lee is known for being an auteur who marries his art with his politics, with the politics often a driving force behind the audience’s interest in his work. He’s never subtle, but most of the time he’s imbued his characters with enough cool to make you not care. In Chi-raq, however, the politics are the biggest failure—and Lee’s lack of subtlety makes it even harder to hide.
Chi-raq is supposedly set in modern-day Chicago, the major American city that, because of the considerable annual number of gun deaths concentrated in its black neighborhoods, has become a favorite reference point for anyone who thinks people aren’t concerned enough about “black-on-black crime.” But I say supposedly because one of the first things Lee gets wrong in this film is importing Los Angeles gang culture to Chicago. His villainous Trojans and Spartans beef over nothing in particular, but are, the film seems to imply, at war with each other simply because they have different colors and flags. Except that’s not how violence works in Chicago. There aren’t gangs that run the streets in Chicago the way Crips and Bloods do in Los Angeles, and, as Jason Harrington points out in The New York Times Magazine, “Most shootings in black Chicago neighborhoods are no longer a result of epic clashes between street battalions.” Instead, they are usually the result of interpersonal disputes, aided by young people cliquing up for protection. And because he mistakes the nature of the violence, there is no examination in Lee’s Chi-raq of the role displacement caused by the demolition of public-housing projects and the closure of public schools has played in keeping the violence going. The plot may have worked if this were about a nameless, faceless place of Lee’s imagination, but Chicago is a real place with a real identity of its own, and he should have taken the time to get that identity right.
But the very first thing Lee gets wrong is the name of the film. “Chi-raq” is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, popularized by native Chicago rapper Chief Keef, and meant to evoke the image of Chicago as a warzone. Lee accepts this and plays into it, starting the film with statistics about the number of deaths in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 and comparing those with the number of shooting deaths in Chicago during the same period. Never once does he question whether or not this normalizes the existence of war zones abroad and what it means for the people living in Iraq, or the fact that Iraq is a war zone precisely because of the actions of the US government. True enough, it’s a name that comes from the young people in the community, but there’s a way of honoring the truth of young people trying to make sense of their condition without uncritically perpetuating this politically empty and morally irresponsible term.
Lee’s uncritical adoption of ideas he should instead scrutinize doesn’t end there. Chi-raq is a modern day adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata, the satire written by Aristophanes about how the women of Greece bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War through a sex strike. Again far from subtle, Lee doesn’t hide the influence. The protagonist, named Lysistrata, finds herself fed up with the gang violence that has gripped her city, in which her boyfriend (named Chi-raq) is a key player. After researching Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee, who led a real-life sex strike to put an end to the Second Liberian Civil War, Lysistrata recruits other women involved with gangbangers into a sex strike of their own. Gradually, the strike spreads from their Chicago neighborhood to the rest of the nation and across the globe, with women demanding an end to violence everywhere—or else they will continue to refuse having sex with men. Through their willingness to withhold sex from their men, Lysistrata and her crew bring about a peace treaty between the Trojans and Spartans, while also convincing the mayor to invest in full employment, affordable housing, and new hospitals.
The Lysistrata tale means that “women are reduced to walking vaginas,” as critic Ijeoma Oluo puts it—their political power comes from denying men access to their genitals—but that’s not the only problem here. At its heart, Chi-raq is a critique of the hypermasculine posturing that props up so much gang violence. The consequences for young black men are clear: more shootings, more death. What, then, would happen in that hypermasculine climate to black women who embark on a sex strike in an attempt to end that violence?
The same thing that happens to them now, with no sex strike in effect. Rape, sexual assault, and beatings are all results of the hypermasculine culture Lee is critiquing. But in Chi-raq he sees only the strength of the black women involved—mostly the strength of their sexuality—not their vulnerability. It’s exactly that kind of thinking that has led to silence around violence against black women, like that perpetrated by former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was recently convicted of sexually assaulting 13 black women. Whether it comes from the state or exists inside their homes, black women have been subjected to forms of violence and only had other black women to come to their aid.
If Chi-raq were truly just satire, as Lee has claimed, and the entire point was to exaggerate in order to draw attention to an important issue, in this case gun violence, then perhaps Lee could be forgiven for this oversight. But Lee has said publicly that he thinks a sex strike could be an effective method of protest for putting an end to violence. He told Stephen Colbert: “I think that a sex strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rape.” That’s one of the most misguided things Lee has ever said publicly, representing a fundamental lack of understanding of rape and sexual assault. A sex strike wouldn’t end rape—rape occurs precisely because someone said “no.” The original play doesn’t feature any rape, and this film follows suit. But rest assured that rape would be one outcome of a sex strike.
And that’s the biggest problem with Chi-raq. Lee includes a systemic critique of why gun violence flourishes in black neighborhoods (though he gives most of the best lines contextualizing the violence to a white, Father Michael Pfleger–inspired, character, as if the black residents of “Chi-raq” are incapable of articulating the same—and though it’s overshadowed by his insistence that we point the finger at ourselves first). He’s clearly concerned about gun violence among young black men, telling us over and over again, “this is an emergency! this is an emergency!” via a robotic alarm-like voiceover. But the time when we uncritically accepted the narrative of the “endangered black man” is over. We are living at a moment where we are expanding our politics to understand how systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism, and imperialism are working to kill, oppress, or exploit us all, not only black men. It doesn’t diminish the need to put an end to gun violence among young black men, but it does call into question whether we can afford to focus all of our attention there—and then allow those same young black men to be complicit in other forms of oppression and violence. The times we live in, where young people are taking to the streets to declare that “black lives matter,” are not defined by the patriarchal impulse to save black men and therefore save the community. Our politics moved beyond that. Spike Lee didn’t come with us.