Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a blistering, potent, hilarious, poignant work of art. The 2015 motion picture weaves broad comedy with compelling drama and ornery music, generating a mess of emotions and reactions. It’s a film designed to provoke and it’s never content to just sit on the screen as a passive piece of nothing. It’s alive and lively, a forceful ode to how cinema can still move mountains.
Lee directs Chi-Raq like a prizefighter. Sometimes he throws muscled punches to the body, while sometimes he mixes in scientific jabs. Sometimes he swings for the fences with a glorious haymaker that misses its target but still stirs the audience with the sheer potency behind the effort. He’s always moving, with Matthew Libatique’s expert lens there to track the action.
Based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the film introduces Nick Cannon as Chi-raq. He’s the leader of the purple-clad Spartans, a Chicago street gang at war with the orange-clad Trojans. The city is torn apart by violence and one day a young girl is murdered. The mother (Jennifer Hudson) cleans her daughter’s blood off the streets the incident effects Chi-raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) profoundly.
After an arsonist tries to get the better of Chi-raq, Lysistrata has really had enough. She moves in with Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and comes up with a plan. She urges all the women of Chicago to deny their men access to the booty until the violence ends. In order to restore normal relations, the gangs will have to lay down their arms and agree to a peace treaty.
Chi-Raq is framed like a bawdy Greek comedy, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the part of the chorus. Here, he’s the suit-wearing Dolemedes and he’s an absolute riot. He sets the stage in profane couplets, breaking down and building up the substance constructed by Lee and Kevin Willmott’s often-brilliant screenplay. The rest of the cast piles on with lyrical vitality.
The picture begins by informing the audience that “this is an emergency” and indeed it is. Chi-Raq flows with all the ripped-from-reality necessities of the gun violence epidemic in America and turns things toward the audience, with characters often speaking right through the screen. Lee has no intentions of making viewers comfortable with his vision and he spares nothing.
And Lee has no intentions of letting his art sit still. Whether it’s the valiant song that opens the movie with nothing but a black screen and red lyrics or the guttural sermon delivered by John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan, the filmmaker spends considerable time wondering about how an artistic work can make a difference.
One of the ways art can work as effective mechanism for change is through the method of fury, which Lee employs liberally. He is furious when he’s funny and he is furious when he’s sexy. The picture capably maintains its balance through its many moods because it’s always centred on something larger than itself. It doesn’t just switch gimmicks for the sake of it. It earns the flurry of passion.
Chi-Raq embodies the many stages of societal discourse through its rich characters. Some, like Chi-raq and Lysistrata, function on a carnal level. Some interact on an intellectual level, like the truth-telling Miss Helen. And some, like Father Corridan, point to the sky with their questions. But all are seeking the same thing.
Lee supports this through the movie’s tirades and triumphs and he creates a fantasy that’s too close to reality to stop the bleeding. He cuts to the bone, but the picture is also boldly entertaining. There isn’t a dull moment in Chi-Raq’s 127 minutes and everything is invigorated, whether by heartache or terror or desire or smoke.
This is a brilliant motion picture. At times, it’s a mess. At times, it overstretches. But it has the guts and sweltering power to reach for something, to speak to something vital. It weaves an apt and imperative saga, one creased by fine performances and genuine ferocity and one that’s every bit the cinematic emergency it should be.