It’s easy to take Spike Lee for granted as a filmmaker. When he’s on his game, there are few better. When he’s off, things get rough. But the thing is that he always sets his ambitions high and swings for the fences. When his movies go wrong, at least it’s always the result of over ambition and an attempt to cram too many potent ideas and striking images on the screen at once. His latest feature Chi-Raq isn’t perfect, but it sure is fascinating, beautiful, and powerful. It’s an insane idea for a film executed with a wilful disregard for subtlety and complacency. Sure, there are times when the movie is much t0o much, but not a second of screentime could be described as dull. God bless the folks at Amazon for letting Lee cut loose and deliver something only he would dare to make. It was getting tough watching him toil away on genre fare for a while. It’s nice to have him back in full force.
The film is an adaptation of the ancient greek comedy by Aristophanes about women withholding sex to prevent a war. Lee sets his version in Chicago, but retains the use of verse as dialogue. The one and only Samuel L. Jackson hosts as the hilariously and perfectly named Dolmedes preaching at a note pitched halfway between Rudy Ray Moore and a Greek Choros (and all Sam Jackson, of course). Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, girlfriend of hip-hop artist and gang member Raq (Nick Cannon, surprisingly good). After the latest act of violence in the war between Raq and his nemesis Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), Lysistrata visits a neighbour played by Angela Basset who firms up the young woman’s beliefs that life needn’t be so defined by death. Following the accidental shooting of a young girl that rocks the community, Lysistrata kicks off her sex strike, enlisting not only the women on both sides of the gang war, but also all the local sex workers to ensure there will be no cheating. As you can imagine things get hilariously tense from there.
Like the best of Spike Lee’s work, Chi-Raq is both playful made and ragefully sincere in it’s messaging. Sure, Lee misses no opportunity to crack a sex joke (even coaxing none other than Dave Chappelle out of his self imposed screen retirement to help sell some gags/rhymes at one point), but he makes it clear that the film is about a very real issues of violence that needs to be addressed. It opens with some terrifying statistics showing how nearly three times as many Americans have been murdered in Chicago alone over the last 15 years than in Iraq. Later Chitown native John Cusack delivers an impassioned speech as a preacher noting (quite correctly) how the rotating prison system has turned into a new form of racially charged repression (the exact line is “death row is the new Jim Crow” and it’s on point). Chi-raq is the work of a very angry Spike Lee making some very poignant arguments. That he did so within his most playful film in years shows the artist playing to all of his strengths.
Chi-Raq must be one of the most vibrantly coloured films to hit screens in quite some time. The costumes and sets are designed with bright primaries that burst off the screen. The verse-as-dialogue gives Lee the chance to stage some musical sequences and he takes full advantage in gorgeously choreographed ways. Performances are uniformly excellent with the actors gamely diving into tricky rhyming dialogue and embracing both the human core of the words and the musical extremes of the verse whenever required. It likely helps that Sam Jackson is the first one to dive into the dialogue given that the man could make a bread recipe recital sound like urgent poetry. Yet everyone else plays along well. Teyonah Parris is remarkable as the lead and precious few disappoint around her. Lee cast well and everyone involved lives up to the considerable challenges before them. The movie is somehow simultaneously silly, stylized, musical, comedic, urgent, powerful, political, and real. It should be impossible to combine all those elements, but somehow Lee pulls it off with ease and some downright stunning visuals that top most blockbusters at a fraction of the cost.
Which is not to say that Chi-raq is a perfect movie. When you play with fire, you get burned and when you make a movie this wildly stylized and insane, you’re going to stretch too far. Sometimes Lee’s goofball dirty humour hits the gutter and occasionally (though very rarely) the heightened presentation dilutes the very real message. The whole thing is likely just a bit too long and a bit too much for it’s own good. Yet at the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Chi-Raq is such a mind-bogglingly ambitious experiment that it’s almost impossible to explain why it works. It just does and on deeper and purer levels than straight art or entertainment. That Lee goes too far is practically the point. The highest heights hit here wouldn’t be possible without the same fearless approach that brings the lowest lows. It’s a beauty of a film to behold and should be experienced on the biggest screen and through the loudest speakers possible. More than anything else, it’s a wonderful thing to have Spike Lee back at his most unapologetically flamboyant. Hopefully it will be the first of many wild experiments from the filmmaker now that new media production companies are willing to take a risk on his established brand. Few things are more exciting for film lovers than a truly unhinged and unruly Spike Lee joint. Hopefully he’s got a few more of these locked in a drawer and ready to go.
Read our interview with Spike Lee here.