Though I may not be a fan of every film Spike Lee has made, there have been some that have caught my attention. Do The Right Thing was an incredibly important film, and Lee brought us some pivotal nineties cinema: Malcolm X, Clockers, He Got Game, and my favourite, Summer of Sam. Aside from 25th Hour, Lee’s latest work seems to have an angry political tone that is lost on me, especially a film like Inside Man, which was meant to be more of a popcorn flick. His ire and frustration with society is completely understandable and respected; however, his way of delivering it feels like he’s shouting in your face incessantly. For these reasons I’m generally disinterested in the projects he works on.
I do have to admit that in the last couple of years, Spike Lee has been branching out in new ways and shifting gears in a career that is approaching forty years. The Brooklyn director has a renewed sense of ambition, coupled with an interest in approaching new methods of making film as well as exploring other genres. Say what you will about his remake of Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy, I certainly have a lot of harsh criticism, but Lee went outside of his usual work to do a project that had shuffled through Hollywood. He seemed to embrace the new indie method of filmmaking and made a successful Kickstarter for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a quasi horror film. If one thing could be said about Spike Lee, the man is completely fearless.
This brings us to Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s ambition turned to an all-time high in possibly his most fiercely angry and socially biting film in years. The film is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set in the bullet ridden war-zone of Englewood in Chicago. With two warring organizations: the Spartans, who are led by the self destructive Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and the Trojans, who look to their leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). The streets are dangerous and innocents are caught in the crossfire; tragically, even children are included in the body count. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Chi-Raq, is inspired to step in and make a difference.
The big idea is to have all of the women in the city, including the ladies from the rival gang, strippers and prostitutes, band together and deny their men access to sex. The women clamp actual chastity belts on, which I guess they found in a museum or something. The message is clear, “No Peace, No Pussy”, and it is pretty effective. Very quickly the men start to lose their minds, the government gets involved and everything starts to escalate out of control with one subtle change for the people of the neighborhood: there’s no bullets flying. Lysistrata’s grand plan seems to have at least distracted everyone from killing each other, but can it last?
This movie hits like a hammer right from the start, as the lyrics from the lead song Pray 4 My City blaze across the screen, red letters on a black background. The film continues to come at you with a fiercely kinetic style with Spike Lee’s production design and art direction firing on all cylinders. Chi-Raq is a feast for your eyes that will take a few viewings to digest every morsel. In this first five minutes of the film, we are introduced to Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), our sort-of narrator who, through a rhyme scheme, gives you the rundown of what’s happening in metaphors. Jackson’s scenes are some of the best pieces in the film, darkly funny at times with a social outrage that can leave you reeling. These parts are where Chi-Raq really excels.
What Lee has a hard time in delivering is the melodramatic scenes in the film. Some scenes feel overwrought with false-feeling emotion, with terribly cheesy music playing over it, or just bad acting. This is most obvious in a pretty pivotal scene in the film where Jennifer Hudson’s character finds her child shot dead in the street. Instead of embodying the tone we’ve already been experiencing in the movie, Hudson goes almost Lifetime TV film performance with her acting and manages to bloat up a potentially moving scene with hot air, which, in turn, makes John Cusack look bad, who’s really only just standing behind her. The good news for Hudson is she makes up for it in a soulful moment afterwards, cleaning her child’s blood from the street.
For every bad moment in the film, and there are quite a few, a lot of this cast is there to elevate the story back up to where it belongs. Cusack is an excellent case in point, as the local priest who delivers a five minute sermon at the child’s funeral that feels like Lee himself directly addressing the gun problem in America and he is absolutely right with every word. This felt like the element of Spike Lee I usually take issue with used in the correct way. It’s an astounding piece and probably one of the best scenes I’ve seen this year. This is added to the other performances I really enjoyed: Jackson, Snipes, who is fantastic, and even Nick Cannon, who is very solid with a large portion of this film on his shoulders.
Chi-Raq managed to do a very rare thing for me and make me interested in a director I had no interest in. Is it a film that I unabashedly love? No, I still have a bunch of issues with the erratic levels of emotion that Spike Lee attacks his canvas with, most of it being anger. What I was left with was an appreciation for the man’s craft, a legendary and iconic filmmaker with volumes to say and a fire that never seems to diminish. I can at least say that I will look forward to the next film but I still hate Oldboy. I give Chi-Raq a three out of five.