Spike Lee is one of those filmmakers whose reputation as a person has overshadowed his reputation as an artist. It’s unfortunate since he came into the scene in the late 80 to early 90s as one of the most compelling, boundary pushing storytellers in the film industry. An even when none of his other films has reached the levels of Do The Right Thing (which I consider to be one of the best American films ever made), he still remains a filmmaker worth seeing and supporting. So, obviously I was heavily anticipating his latest film Chi-Raq. It is a stylized modern adaptation of Lysistrata, a Greek comedy written by Aristophanes. It’s also worth noting that Chi-Raq is the first original film to be distributed by Amazon Studios, who partnered with Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate for the theatrical distribution, and they plan on releasing the film through Amazon Instant Video on an unspecified date. Similarly to Netflix’s release of Beasts of No Nation, Amazon Studios is looking to shake things up in the business of film distribution in the 21st century.
“Chi-Raq” is the nickname given to Chicago, whose gang violence has gotten so bad that it is comparable to the level of casualties that America has experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq. After getting inspired by a neighbor and a local woman whose daughter was shot and killed, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to take action in stopping the violence in the city once and for all. And she’ll do it by organizing all the women and holding a sex-strike until the two big gangs in the city, the Spartans and the Trojans, drop the guns and negotiate a truce in order to stop the violence.
The last time Spike Lee has made a really good film since Inside Man, though I think Red Hook Summer and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus both have merit. Chi-Raq marks a return to form and is easily among his best. This is such a purely Spike Lee film and it’s unlike anything you’ll see this year. It’s a wild, crazy ride that almost shouldn’t work because of its tonal inconsistencies, bizarre stylistic choices and the laughable commitment to such a weird premise, yet somehow it all manages to work. The only film I can recall coming close to being such a stylish take on old material might be Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet. Spike Lee always works best when he’s angry and has something to say, and Chi-Raq is nothing short of a furious, ambitious, hilarious, satirical triumph.
The film is co-written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott, and the writing in this is some of the most impressive I’ve seen this year. It’s a wonderful balance of brutal realism and broad farce. It’s a sharply written film that maybe unsubtle in its thematic approach, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and the focus on that core is so strong, intense and energetic that it becomes the glue that holds all the craziness together. Another interesting thing about the film is that the dialogue consists mainly of couplets, and it never comes across as forced or tiring. Samuel L. Jackson plays Dolmedes, who is essentially the film’s chorus as he comments on the various story elements, and he rocks every second of his limited screentime. It’s a wonderfully written film that wows you with the dialogue with practically every other line, and it’s a shame that it will likely be ignored come the major awards. The film also has many of Lee’s standard tropes and stylistic choices, basically amped up to 11, and they are used to great effect. It’s a supremely well-made film. It is is shot beautifully and full of vivid colors thanks to cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, and the editing by Ryan Denmark and Hye Mee Na is tight and effective.
At the center of the film is a commanding lead performance from Teyonah Parris, who is such a great presence that it won’t surprise me if this gives her more chances for bigger projects in the future. Granted, Spike Lee tends to get great stuff out of all of his performances, so this is not the least bit surprising. And the big supporting cast with the likes of Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and so many others that would take me forever to name, are all great (yes, including Nick Cannon). Not only do they balance the tonal weirdness with ease, but they all do a fantastic job with the rhyming dialogue. Even though some performances seem like they are from completely different movies, like Jennifer Hudson whose character is like something out of Fruitvale Station, and on the other extreme is Wesley Snipes who is somehow more over-the-top than he was in Demolition Man. It’s bizarre, but it comes together in a way that doesn’t come across as disastrous or unwatchable.
I loved Chi-Raq, I loved how angry it was, I loved how ambitious it was, I loved how fun it was, and I loved just how far it was willing to go into some strange tonal territory. I’m willing to call it a return to form for Spike Lee, and it’s easily one of the most relevant and important films to be released this year. And while the ending might feel too hopeful and optimistic given the themes, it’s still hones in on the personal and intimate elements in a way that gives all the build up a very satisfying payoff. Obviously it can’t portray all the various nuances and angles that get to the root of the gun violence problem, but that’s not what I think the film is going for. It is simply using a classical story in order to bring attention to a serious problem and begs the audience to take a stand and be a part of the fight to stop the violence. It’s a pitch perfect satire that gives a unique voice and a fascinating take on a pressing issue in this country and it’s a kind of filmmaking we desperately need more of. 90 / 100