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.