Teyonah Parris in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (Parrish Lewis/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios)
The sign of a great filmmaker is often not the ability to make every film a classic remembered decades after its release, as Spike Lee did with Do the Right Thing. There have been scores of great films made by directors whose other works are inessential. It is often the test of a great filmmaker to make a film that exists beyond categorization.
There are few examples of this phenomenon, those films that exist beyond narrow categories of good and bad. Chi-Raq is one of those movies.
Many will hate this film, a few others will love it, and perhaps the most accurate reaction to the film is a deep sense of conflict. No one who views the film, however, will finish the movie without a visceral reaction to its ambition and its exhilarating reach.
There has undoubtedly never been a film like Chi-Raq before. It is an often comedic take on gang warfare in Chicago based on “Lysistrata,” the Greek play written 2,500 years ago. Much of the dialogue is in verse that evokes both its original theatrical origins and the rap that some of its characters perform and the rest consider integral to their culture. It is additionally a blunt polemic espousing the political demands of Black Lives Matter and similar critics within the black community, and perhaps most strikingly of all, Chi-Raq is at times a musical with choreographed numbers.
It even has a Greek chorus in the form of Samuel L. Jackson, who appears to narrate the action with the aplomb that one would naturally expect from the actor. One can imagine Lee and his collaborators on the film asking whether they should try incorporating different ideas to the film, and Lee answering every single question with ‘yes.’
Chi-Raq stars Teyonah Parris – who singlehandedly represented the civil rights movement on “Mad Men” and was the lead in Dear White People – as Lysistrata, the girlfriend of gang member and aspiring rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). After escaping a gang attack that burns down her house and witnessing the aftermath of a shooting that kills a little girl, Lysistrata goes under the tutelage of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who informs her of how women in Liberia helped bring the end to a civil war by withholding sex from their men until they negotiated peace. The women of Liberia may have been inspired by Aristophanes, since “Lysistrata” imagined this type of sex strike as an end for the Peloponnesian War.
Much of Chi-Raq presents the film as a vulgar comedy; the tagline of the film is “no peace, no piece,” but the movie itself does not settle for advertising-friendly euphemisms. The comedy is raunchy, and many of the characters – particularly the men – are caricatures. This does not necessarily mean that the film lacks wit, especially once Lysistrata takes her quest to deny men sex to a larger scale than just organizing the women in her community to withhold sex and takes it to an international scale.
Perhaps the most amusing scenes involve the government’s attempt to stop Lysistrata’s quest by getting her and the women to give up their celibacy through the use of R&B music from the ’70s. In keeping with the film’s ‘throw everything at the wall’ aesthetic, this leads to an elaborate musical performance within a National Guard armory. The Murderer’s Row wing of a women’s prison from “Chicago” is no longer the least-expected setting for a musical number.
Despite this absurdity, Lee’s take on the mistreatment of blacks within American society remains as pungent as ever. Chi-Raq cites names such as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland with the urgency of any political op-ed.
Despite Lee’s reputation as a polemicist, this is perhaps the first time in the director’s history of political filmmaking that he has taken on contemporary issues with such urgency. Do the Right Thing ends with a racial riot, yet predated the Rodney King riots by several years. At the time that South Los Angeles burned, Lee did not take on that event itself, instead shifting focus to the historical events surrounding Malcolm X.
Lee rarely seems content to limit himself to matters of immediate concern. Chi-Raq may be the closest he has come to this, and yet even a story about the current disintegration of Chicago is presented in terms of a comedy from Ancient Greece.
While much of Chi-Raq is a comedy, it is foremost a political statement. Few institutions escape Lee’s criticism, from the police to local and state governments, the military and even the gangs and the community that tolerates them. Since its primarily focus is the political, the film often loses sight of the human dimension, although Jennifer Hudson, as the mother of a child murdered in gang crossfire, provides recognizable human emotion amidst the sex jokes and campaign-style jeremiads. Bassett, in her first Spike Lee film since Malcolm X, gives a too-brief performance that demonstrates that she is both one of America’s greatest and certainly our most under-used actress.
Lee accepted an Academy Award several weeks ago, an Honorary Award generally given to filmmakers toward the end of both their careers and their lives. Previous recipients of the award like Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet had perhaps one more film before the end of their life, some even fewer than that. Lee received his at an age when he might reasonably expect several decades of filmmaking, and far more opportunities to provoke audiences as he does with Chi-Raq.
Many audiences will loathe it, even more will not understand it, but even those who finish the film scratching their heads and asking just what Lee was thinking will have no doubt of the man’s political stance, nor will they forget the utter audacity of this film. It is an ambitious, unforgettable mess of a movie that – despite its many, many flaws, inconsistencies and lapses in taste and judgment – only a great artist could make.
Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios
In theaters Dec. 4
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