Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Movie Review: Chi-Raq

Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott based on the play by Aristophanes.
Starring: Nick Cannon (Chi-Raq), Teyonah Parris (Lysistrata), Wesley Snipes (Cyclops), Angela Bassett (Miss Helen), Samuel L. Jackson (Dolmedes), John Cusack (Father Mike Corridan), Jennifer Hudson (Irene), David Patrick Kelly (General King Kong), D.B. Sweeney (Mayor McCloud), Dave Chappelle (Morris), Steve Harris (Old Duke), Harry Lennix (Commissioner Blades).

Spike Lee is, without a doubt, the only director who would attempt to make a movie like Chi-Raq. The film is a musical, sex comedy/satire about gun violence based on a Greek play written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, but set in modern day Chicago. Lee and his co-writer – Kevin Willmott – decide to write the whole movie in verse – basically having all the dialogue spoken in rhyming couplets. They have cast Samuel L. Jackson as the wonderfully named Dolmedes – part Blaxploitation figure, part Greek chorus, to narrate the action. The basic plot of the movie involves the women of Chicago, led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who are tired of all the gun deaths – including those of innocent bystanders, who are often children, going on a sex strike to force their men to give up violence. “No peace, no pussy”, is their blunt catchphrase. Lee has never been an overly subtle director – he likes his films loud, blunt and in your face – and you’d be hard pressed to find a louder or blunter movie even in Lee’s filmography. But sometimes that is precisely what is needed – and Chi-Raq is one of those times. Chi-Raq is hardly a perfect movie – by trying to do so much, Lee has to know it’s not all going to work – but perfection is an overrated quality in movies anyway. Chi-Raq gives you more to think about than just about any other film out there – you probably won’t agree with it all, it probably all won’t work for you – but dammit all, you’re not going to forget Chi-Raq. The film is perfectly imperfect.

Lee’s bold, stylistic gambits start right from the beginning, as he allows the entire title song to play out, against a black screen, with the lyrics being the only words on the screen. If you’re watching this film, you’re going to listen to this song – about the violence and hate that has infested Chicago – and you’re going to deal with the lyrics. He then segues right to Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolemedes explaining what the hell the movie is up to, and then another song – performed by a rapper/gangster named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), glorifying the exact thing that the previous song demonized. As the song is being performed – in a packed club – Lysistrata is among the women in the crowd, dancing in unison, in what looks like a war dance. Surprising no one, that song will be cut short when shots start ringing out leaving several people dead of injured. None of this seems to have much of an effect on Chi-Raq or Lysistrata, who we see engaged in a vigorous sex right afterwards – although that too will be interrupted by violence. It’s not long before a little girl ends up dead on the street – a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – leading to a memorable image of the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) trying in vain to scrub her dead daughter’s blood off the street. It is also this death that sets in motion the rest of the movie – as Lysistrata goes to talk to a neighbor (Angela Bassett) and starts to see things in a different light. She gets together with the women who are with members of Chi-Raq’s gang, as well as women in their rival gangs (led by Wesley Snipes’s cackling, one eyed Cyclops) and starts the sex strike. Things pick up even more when Lysistrata and her women take over the armory to have their demands met.

Lee has never been afraid of preaching or sermonizing in his movie – and you have to give him credit in Chi-Raq that he doesn’t even try to hide that fact. There is a good 10-15 sequence when Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) gives a sermon at the funeral of the dead little girl, where he calls out everything from the politicians to the NRA to the culture of toxic masculinity that has led to all this violence in the first place. This does grind the movie to a halt – but not in a bad way. At first, it’s rather jarring (and you wonder why Lee cast Cusack, and not a black man in the role – although apparently he is based on a real life figure) – but Cusack does some amazing work in this sequence. It’s almost another of the film’s musical numbers.

Chi-Raq deliberately has some drastic tonal shifts in it. At times, the film is hilariously funny and over-the-top – like the sequence where Lysistrata takes over the armory by seducing its commander – an openly racist General, who humps a Civil War canon while wearing Confederate flag underwear. At times the film is powerful and emotional – Hudson cleaning the blood off the streets, the various young men in wheelchairs or suffering from other ailments talking about how their lives have changed because of the violence. At times the film is undeniably sexy and erotic – especially the face-off climax between Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, in a big brass bed, in front of everyone, which doubles as a brilliant musical number. The fact the film’s dialogue is written in verse does lead to its share of awkward dialogue, but the game cast makes it work. No one is better than Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata who owns the screen is a dynamic, sexy performance that deftly navigates the tonal shifts, and creates a real character out of Lysistrata. Lee has never been a great writer of female characters – some of his weaker films (like She’s Gotta Have It or Girl 6) have had female leads that Lee never truly understands. That’s not the case here as Lysistrata is the central character, and Parris delivers a great performance.

Chi-Raq was made by Amazon studios – their first movie – and is another of Lee’s recent string of lowered budgeted film, produced by means outside of the Hollywood studio system. Whatever you thought of the two more recent movies like this – 2012’s Red Hook Summer and 2015’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (and, for the record, I think both are among Lee’s weakest film), you cannot doubt their passion – nor their personal meaning to Lee. Lee is at an age when many directors soften, and simply repeat their greatest hits (he did after all just win a lifetime achievement Oscar – the least the Academy could do considering all the times they have ignored his work) – but Lee isn’t interested in doing that. He is continuing to make bold movies that take huge chances. Sometimes, those chances don’t pay off – but wouldn’t you rather Lee continue in this vein, rather than make more films like Oldboy (2013) – a thriller made with genuine skill, that nonetheless feels like exactly what it is – a work for hire. Chi-Raq is a bold and original work – and no matter its flaws, it is one of the most vital films of the year.

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