There's so much to say about Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, I don't know where to begin.
One of the film's themes is the nature of power. Since its inception, the film industry has been characterized by a struggle for power between directors, producers, stars, and writers. As seen in Trumbo, the first to lose the battle were the writers, so they decamped to television. The power of the old-line Hollywood studios declined in the late 1960s, so the 1970s saw the ascendance of the director and, as a result, a second golden age of American film. In 1980, the directors' power was broken on the rocks of Heaven's Gate, and by the end of the decade, movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenneger and Tom Cruise were in charge, commanding high salaries and exerting creative control. The indie film revolution of the 1990s, which Spike Lee helped kick off, was on some level an attempt to reclaim the directors' power. Now, in the twilight of the movie stars, power has reverted to the producers, and so resources are tied up in making endless sequels and reboots of proven properties. Enter Amazon, the internet retail powerhouse who is making a big push into video. For their first foray into theatrical film, they tapped Lee and apparently gave him free rein. Lee responded by going absolutely insane.
- Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata
2015 finds Lee in a familiar state: energized with righteous rage. The director could have taken a look at widespread reports of police brutality against people of color and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, pointed at his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, and said "I told you so!" Instead, he made Chi-Raq, which is like nothing else in theaters today. It's a satire, a comedy, and a musical. It's also based on a 2,500-year-old Greek play called Lysistrata, and so it is written mostly in rhyming verse. And yet, Chi-Raq is even weirder than it sounds. The first five minutes or so are essentially a lyric music video for "Pray 4 My City," with nothing but text and an animated image of a map of the United States made up entirely of guns. When we finally do see someone on screen, it's the rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) rocking a packed club. Then the action freezes, and we meet Dolmedes, the narrator/chorus played by national treasure Samuel L. Jackson in full Rufus Thomas mode.
I would be content listening to Jackson speak in rhyme for two hours. Fortunately, Lee introduces us to Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, a powerhouse of confidence and sexual energy. After witnessing the horrors of street violence and having her apartment burned down by a rival gang out to kill her boyfriend Chi-Raq, Lysistrata is inspired by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) to organize a sex strike, asserting their power by "seizing the means of reproduction." The gangs will either end their senseless violence or go without booty. The sex strike spreads until, as Dave Chappelle says in a hilarious cameo as a strip-club owner, "Even the hoes is no-shows."
The sprawling cast includes Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, and token white guy John Cusack as a priest who shouts himself hoarse at a funeral for a little girl killed in the gang crossfire. Cusack looks more engaged and passionate onscreen than he has in years, but his big scene is also a symptom of what's wrong with Chi-Raq. In isolation, it's a powerful scene, as Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott indict the whole sociopolitical system that keeps African Americans locked in cycles of poverty and violence. But in the context of the film, it's a momentum killer. Free to follow his wildest impulses, Lee constructs one killer image after another, but little thought seems to have been given as to how it all fits together, which means Chi-Raq adds up to less than the sum of its impressive parts.
It's inspiring to see a talent of Lee's caliber swing for the fences. Chi-Raq may not be perfect, but I can't stop thinking about it.