DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee • PRO: Spike Lee • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na • DES: Alex DiGerlando • MUS: Terence Blanchard • CAST: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson
It’s very easy to be disappointed by a Spike Lee film. While impossible to argue that Do the Right Thing (1989) is not one of the greatest films of all time, its aftermath has greatly impacted the public and critical reception of Lee’s post-‘89 career. No other film in mainstream American cinema comes close to depicting the nuance and complexity of racism which plagues its country and no other film by Lee has achieved this either. The director has constantly butt heads with studio execs on the depiction of subjects in his films, but undoubtedly the hugely underrated Bamboozled (2000) was the final nail in the coffin in mainstream media for Lee’s commentary on race in America. Although never having left filmmaking, Lee’s name is now more often recalled from public feuds with numerous celebrities and press than with his recent films; the egregiously dull Oldboy (2013) remake being the most high profile since Inside Man (2006). Spike Lee will always remain a contentious figure in American cinema for as long as race itself remains a contentious subject in American culture. So, one of the greatest pleasures that Chi-Raq (2015) gives to fans of Spike Lee is a sense of return to the earlier films which helped build his reputation as one of the best directors working in the industry.
Chi-Raq’s title derives from the moniker given to Chicago after a scandalous revelation showed that the number of people killed in the city has surpassed the number of soldiers who have died in the Afghan and Iraq war combined since 2001. In this exaggerated exploration of black-on-black violence, two gangs, the Trojans and Spartans, continue to attempt murdering one another on a day-to-day basis. It’s only when an 11-year old girl dies amidst crossfire that Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris from Dear White People), girlfriend of Spartan leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon from “America’s Got Talent”), decides to try end the conflict with her sisters for good. Inspired by Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, Lysistrata and the other women begin a sex strike, depriving men of any sexual gratification for as long as they continue to fight. While the men initially treat the abstinence as absurd, tensions quickly rise until a battle of the sexes begins and both sides try to make the other cave first.
If the plot sounds ludicrous, that’s because it is. Adapting Lysistrata by Aristophane, Chi-Raq embraces a comic absurdity which evokes a theatricality which hasn’t been seen in Lee’s films since Do the Right Thing. Heavily reliant on sexual humour, its use is either hit-or-miss depending on a person’s predilection for that type of humour. While most sex jokes are soft ball and cliché, the absurdity with which they’re executed has a humour that is admittedly infectious. A cameo appearance by David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors; “Twin Peaks”) as a racist general is as bizarre as a fan might expect of the actor. It’s equally hard to deny that the visual flair and vibrant style culminates in a showdown which is simply too silly to spoil here.
Many have criticized Lee for his decision to adapt the classical Greek play by suggesting it provides no insight into the problems facing Chicago. While Lee’s choice of adaptation is an intriguing one, employing broad comedy as a means to angrily rebuke Chicagoans as asinine for their continuing decision to kill one another, it doesn’t provide any level of insight into the social problem beyond a brief rap song opening about living in Chi-Raq. Likewise, at times the film it most resembles is Baz Luhrmann’s inexplicably popular Romeo + Juliet, with the classical source and contemporary setting not quite congealing with modern sensibilities. There’s an ongoing sense of incongruity and Lee attempts to eschew obvious problems by embracing its theatricality even further, intermitting the film with Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction; The Avengers) as a Greek chorus.
The end result is a film that undoubtedly feels lacking as a political or social commentary but still manages to delight with its sense of creativity that has sorely been lacking in Spike Lee’s most recent films. It’s undeniable that the image of a mother washing her child’s blood off the street is sharply poignant. Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata is extraordinary and truly stands out as one of the strongest performances in cinema this year. Lysistrata demands an actor who can not only seduce and exude an intoxicating sexuality, but continuously demonstrate a confident strength and intelligence that can intimidate as well as intrigue. Parris does so with exceptional ease and the young actress shows an awe-inspiring promise in any future roles she might appear in.
While Chi-Raq may not be for everyone, it certainly exhibits a strong passion for artistic creativity that never falters for a second. Hopefully, Lee continues in this direction to show why exactly he was considered one of the greatest directors in the ’80s and ’90s.
Chi-Raq is released 2nd December 2016