A return to form for Spike Lee? Maybe. A return to bluntness and conviction that marked some Lee’s finest work? Definitely. Lee’s latest joint surely packs a message and he isn’t trying to argue it out. He just bashes our head with it as it unravels but Chi-Raq is also uniquely artistic – It was to me at least.
Chi-Raq is overdosed on flamboyance, wit and buoyancy and Lee overly commits to this tone even when it starts to get tired, and it does. He also takes a creative punt by making this narrative a musical of the hip hop orientation. Now I don’t strictly consider Hip Hop music but not for some condescending reason but because Hip Hop is a lyrically inclined medium that probably leans more towards poetry. This point favours the film because I struggle to invest myself in your conventional musical.
Chi-Raq is based on the classic Greek play, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which tells the story of women who withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. Lee’s adaptation takes place in Chicago and we learn this city suffers more deaths from gun violence than the Afghan war and the Iraq war hence the endonym Chi-Raq. In Lee’s world, the women chant “No Peace, No Pussy” as they tire of the gun violence brewed by rival gangs; The Trojans and the Spartans. The idea of withholding sex in hope of peace may seem farfetched but there is at least a real world precedent – one that came to mind when I heard Lee was working on this film.
In a conflict themed African studies class in University, I saw a documentary on Leymah Gbowee and the Women of the Liberia Mass Action for Peace who went on a sex strike in 2003, among other things, to try and keep their men from fighting in the civil war. Lee references that documentary here. We see our young heroine Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris get inspired by these women from Liberia, with help from the blackademic Miss Evans (Angela Bassett), to kick start the “No Peace, No Pussy” movement.
Teyonah Parris is quite the lead here – stunning, clever, daring, *whisper it* feminist and sensually radical. She packs the energy this film needs and rides on till the very end. Her boyfriend happens to be rapper and Spartan gang leader, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). He sets the tone for the films iambic dialogue and tonal motif of urgency with his rap song; “Pray 4 My City”. His gang is in violent beef with the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, and yes he has an eyepatch). A pimp-looking Samuel L Jackson pops up then and again as Dolmedes to provide some witty exposition in a role akin to Mister Señor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing.
Lee is quite savvy here. He knows when to pause for reflection and poignancy or when to drop some blunt scathing beats. He knows when to tone down the theatrics and when to straight up mock sections of society. He finely mocks Malcom X in the first act of his 1992 film of the same name. He views Malcom, before the X, as silly and it showed in his early direction. Lee isn’t so diplomatic here. Consider the goofy sequence that has Lysistrata seducing the cartoonish pantomime war general who is clad in confederate flag style pants. Lee does his bit to emasculate the confederate flag and he makes his views known on a number of contemporary American race issues.
You bet this film gets preachy and as it so happens, one of the preachiest characters happens to be local preacher Father Mike Corridan played by John Cusack, who moves like a skinny Stephen Segal here and despite his conspicuous whiteness, no one brings up his race. Some of the Chi-Raq’s most heavy-handed moments come during a Father Corridan’s sermon at a young girl’s funeral and it plays as a blunt check-list of liberal American grievances. Lee knew his film was going to be preachy so why not put a chunk of his message in a sermon sequence.
Lest we forget, Chi-Raq is a musical and we are served with some tastefully ratchet skits and well sensually synchronised dance routines to R&B music. It is a visual feast for more than one reason and it retains some empathy and urgency at its core. It will hit resonate for those it may concern. The rest of us can revel in how buoyantly and artistically subversive and even offensive this film becomes and it needs to be to hit home catch the attention of the powers that be.