If you’ve been paying attention to Spike Lee’s campaign for his latest movie Chi-Raq, I will not begrudge you your wariness, dubiousness, or furious side-eyes. I’ve been feeling and doing all of these things since Lee dropped the music video he directed for “WGDB” (We’ve Got to Do Better), a song written and performed by Chicago-native Kevon Carter for the film’s soundtrack. To say that “WGDB” is a pestilential assault on both the ears and viewers’ intelligence would be an insult: Musically, it’s a plodding mess that strains for John Legend–like earnestness (which is already grating when Legend himself does it); lyrically, it’s one chiding, respectability-politics sermon that Don Lemon and Rudy Giuliani would love. “We’re the only race that shoots and kills themselves,” Carter wails. OK, then.
But “WGDB” is not entirely indicative of how Lee explores this hotly debated topic in Chi-Raq. Thankfully, he hasn’t completely gone the way of “pound cake”–era Bill Cosby; instead, Lee’s satire attempts to indict American society as a whole for its hand in helping to create a place as dangerous as the South Side of Chicago.
The first hint that he isn’t solely interested in the “but what about black-on-black crime” narrative comes about 15 minutes into the film. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) has been forced from her home after her apartment was burned down by rivals of her rapping, gangbanging boyfriend who goes by the name Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). Her older next-door neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) lets her stay with her, and they trade barbs about the state of their city. Helen mentions how she was forced to leave the Cabrini-Green projects due to gentrification (a favorite Spike topic), tosses off a comment about how the U.S. spends tons of money to help “rebuild” Iraq and Afghanistan but leaves its inner cities poor, and muses that if the white children of Sandy Hook didn’t make people care about gun control, concern for black bodies certainly won’t. Elsewhere, Samuel L. Jackson, as the narrator/Greek chorus Dolmedes, draws a direct comparison between the predominantly white police force and a black gang member, with one representative flanking either side of him: Black America, and Chicagoans in particular, are equally terrified by both, he says.
There are many other references to systemic issues littered throughout—Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Ferguson all get shout-outs—but the most brutal takedown comes from Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), who is based on Michael Pfleger, a social activist and priest for a mostly black congregation on the South Side. The sermon occurs at the funeral of a young girl who was killed by a stray bullet while playing outside (Jennifer Hudson plays her grieving mother), and Father Mike tells a story of “the life of a gun.” In it, he criticizes pretty much everyone—the politicians in the pockets of the NRA who allow for loose gun control laws, the white suburban kids who admire and buy into “thug” culture (via music, movies, etc.) from afar, the crooked real estate people and the prison industry that shield the black community from the hope of having a future. After all of this, he lands on the community itself, for keeping silent about the people they know are murderers out of fear of retaliation. It’s frank, invigorating, emotional, sad—and it’s the film’s manifesto laid bare.
Admittedly, it’s a little weird that this clear-sighted moment comes from one of the film’s few white characters rather than one of its many black characters. And I think it’s fair to question why, while Helen, Dolmedes, and Lysistrata all have moments to call out racial injustice and gang violence, those moments aren’t nearly as beefed up or treated as centerpiece. In this sense, at least, the movie leans perhaps too closely to the notion that black people aren’t able to help themselves.
At the same time, I don’t think Lee’s problematic choices onscreen or off—he’s made some incredibly misinformed statements about the real-world effectiveness of sex strikes—mean the movie as a whole is worth dismissing. Chi-Raq may center on the problems of Chicago’s South Side, but it’s also a takedown of our country’s federally sanctioned love affair with guns and violence, something that is especially relevant in light of the two mass shootings that have just occurred in less than a week. It’s a satire meets morality play: Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) is portrayed as ethically bankrupt and buffoonish; “Penis Envy” is written in giant letters on the gun of a giant army tank.
There’s a crackle in this movie that’s been missing from Spike Lee’s last few films—Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a boring mess, Oldboy an unnecessary remake, and Red Hook Summer feels like a student film in the worst way possible—and Lee has managed to again make a movie worth debating, wrestling with, and maybe even hating, depending upon how you feel about him as a director. It isn’t perfect, but it deserves to be given a chance.