Friday, August 10, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015)

Chi-Raq (2015)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott based on the play by Aristophanes.
Starring: Teyonah Parris (Lysistrata), Nick Cannon (Chi-Raq), 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).
No matter what you think of Chi-Raq – and this is one of those films where the reactions are all over the place – I don’t think you can fault Spike Lee for not being ambitious enough when he made the film. It is a film about the crisis in Chicago – where gang violence takes victims every day, both ones directly involved in the gangs, and those who are just trying to live in their lives in the dangerous streets. I’m not quite sure why Lee – and co-writer Kevin Willmott – chose to address this issue by adapting a play written a couple thousand years ago, by Aristophanes, or why they felt the need to write the whole movie in rhyming verse, or why they also chose to make the film both a full-fledged musical and a demented comedy. That the film can be all of those things, and also be a painful howl of rage is more than a little bit remarkable. As I said with a few other films of Lee’s over the course of this series, you may well hate Chi-Raq – but dammit, you’re not going to forget it.
The Jean-Luc Godard inspired opening has you sit there and listen to the title song of the movie play out in full, as the lyrics flash onto the screen. The song is angry at the state of Chicago, and saddened at the same time. It will set the tone for the rest of the movie. We are then introduced to Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), our narrator, who will explain why the rest of the film will be spoken in verse, and introduce us to the rest of the characters – he doesn’t have a role beyond doing this throughout the film, and yet it remains one of Jackson’s best performances for Lee – a kind of profane, extended rant that evokes everything from the play they are basing it on, to Patton. The main character will be Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a rapper and a leader of one of the two gangs doing all the fighting in Chicago. An energetic performance – complete with large scale choreography by the crowd in the club – is ended when gunshots ring out – and people are left on the ground bleeding. This doesn’t much bother either Chi-Raq or Lysistrata – it doesn’t stop them from having sex when they get back home. But two events will get Lysistrata thinking – the first is when their house is burned down, and she’s forced to move out for a little while, and in with Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who activates her conscience. And the second is she sees Irene (Jennifer Hudson), wailing in pain at the site where her little girl was murdered – a victim because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lee stays with Irene for a long time at that scene – as she tries to scrub the blood off the pavement. Lysistrata’s idea on how to stop the violence is simple – the women will stop having sex with their men until they make peace. She gets a remarkable level of buy-in.
Tonally speaking, Chi-Raq is deliberately all over the place. There are scenes of sadness – like Irene scrubbing the blood of her daughter off the pavement, scenes of pure anger – a remarkable, and long, sermon at the daughter’s funeral delivered by John Cusack (curious choice, but it works) as he goes after everyone from the gangs to the politicians to the police to the NRA. There are almost moments of pure comedy – Dave Chappelle shows up for one scene as a strip club owner, explaining that the strippers are honoring the strike, and as such, there is no dancing going on. There are ecstatic musical numbers throughout the film – and a brilliant set piece near the end, when Chi-Raq and Lysistrata get together to try and see who can outlast the other, as he is trying to bring the strike (and, by that point, the women’s occupation of the armory) to a halt – all on a bed set up as if on stage. The performances, as a result, run the gamut as well – from Cannon’s more serious role, to Wesley Snipes high pitched giggling psycho as his rival. Best of all is Parris, who somehow anchors the movie, and makes the tonal shifts work. It’s a short list of female protagonists in Lee films – but hers is clearly the best, most well-rounded of them all.
I honestly don’t know what precisely Lee was trying to accomplish with this film. He doesn’t give any real solutions to the problems presented here – they aren’t any easy ones, and Lee doesn’t pretend there are any (even if, he gives the film a relatively upbeat ending). If he wanted to reach more people with his howl of rage, he wouldn’t have wrapped in musical numbers and comedy, and written the whole thing in verse. Yet the whole movie is completely and totally fascinating, and also one of the most entertaining films Lee has made in years. With a film like this, there is no way it was going to be perfect – there are certainly flaws, although I think many may disagree on what they are. But it is an energetic film – a powerful one, and an entertaining one. And one only Spike Lee would even attempt to make.

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