This is my public service announcement to any readers out there: do yourself a favor and go see Chi-Raq. I saw the film on New Year’s Day in the capital city of the state of Oregon, the stage for a drama of its own that is currently playing out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. As I sat in that arthouse cinema, which is not widely frequented, I thought to myself that there was not a more fitting film to ring in 2016. It is a film of hope and action. It shows that a community-based, grassroots movement can have an appreciable outcome on the world.
Mr. Lee, you are an incredibly polarizing filmmaker; there is no denying this. So much of your oeuvre is incendiary, controversial, or termed “difficult” to watch. People love you or hate you, criticize you for where you started out and where you’ve ended up. Let’s just put criticisms of your person aside, and focus on the films.
I have personally been a fan of yours since my parents introduced me to Do the Right Thing. I contributed to your Kickstarter campaign for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, although I have not yet seen it… I will though. I’ve read your book about the production process of Do the Right Thing. I respect you as a filmmaker, and I think you have an important and diverse voice in the current filmic landscape.
Chi-Raq takes thematic material explored earlier in your career and expands upon it in a way that can only be described as poetically. I have not read any of the criticisms of this work, but I feel like I can anticipate them. People will be wondering what business you have reimagining a classical Greek work of literature in the way that you have. In my mind you’ve preserved the rhyme and rhythm of the Greek, and created something relevant to so much of the contemporary landscape of the United States. I like to think of it as something like a hip hop opera. The language in Chi-Raq is like the most classic of poetry. It’s as much a pleasure to listen to as I imagine it is to speak.
However, the language is but one of many layers of music in this film. I was talking about it immediately after viewing with my fiancé, and we determined that you created a musical. Spike Lee and musical, I imagine, are two ideas that are rarely thought of together, especially when the most ready examples of film musicals that come to mind are those of studio era Hollywood: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain, Carousel, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, etc. Now, as a student of film history, construction, and theory, I would never seek to undervalue the historical importance of these films in a greater context. While I derive great personal enjoyment from viewing movies like these, even I will admit that their nostalgia lacks relevance in today’s world. Their demographic is narrow and self-selecting, but, Chi-Raq, that has the potential to reach a whole new audience of people who have continued to be marginalized in mainstream media narratives. Shirley Temple isn’t cutting it for escapism anymore. Besides, sometimes filmmakers and films have a moral imperative to eschew escapism in favor of telling a meaningful, powerful, and yes, entertaining, story that has the potential to challenge the status quo and people’s points of view.
And therein lies the beauty of Chi-Raq. Your form and genre play are masterful. You have taken one of the most traditional filmic forms, the classic Hollywood musical and superimposed that form upon an even more ancient and venerated one, that of the Greek comedy: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Then to top it all off, you made it new by taking back hip hop, bringing it back to the poetry and the soul. Is that meta enough for all of the film scholars out there? Subject matter of the film aside, and I do not set it aside lightly, for the plague of unnecessary gun violence in the country is a true crisis of monumental proportions, the presentation of this story is enough to start people thinking about the power and meaning of film as an artistic medium. What does genre even matter anyway? With Chi-Raq, you do a credit to your artistry by making a film that rejects reductionist classification.
I know not everyone is going to like this film, and that’s absolutely fine. The world would be a boring place without differences of opinion. But I would entreat any potential viewers to not write it off without experiencing it first. This is a movie that needs to be seen. Thank you Mr. Lee. I can’t wait to watch it again.