Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: Chi-Raq

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" opens with a staggering statistic: more people have been killed by gun violence in Chicago during the past 14 years than lives were lost during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. So, it should come as no shock that the town has gained the nickname that doubles as the title of Lee's new film, which is equally messy and bold as well as one of the filmmaker's best 21st century films.

Based loosely on Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata," Lee's film follows the efforts of that same character (played here by Teyonah Parris) to quell the violence in her Chicago neighborhood by bringing together the girlfriends and wives of the local gang leaders and getting them to pledge to not have sex with their men until they agree to stop the violence. Or, as they frequently chant during the course of the picture, "no peace, no p-," well, you get the idea.

But Lee is after much more here than just a treatise on gang violence in Chicago and the film is often firing on numerous cylinders and taking on a multitude of topics, which occasionally causes scenes to crash and burn (a few too many musical numbers, for example), but mostly pays high dividends.

On Lee's mind this time around is everything from our national scourge of gun violence (the number of this week's mass shootings alone could have justified the making of this film), the NRA, gang violence, police brutality and the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, unemployment, racism, the confederate flag and much, much more. If the film often feels a little overstuffed, it's counterbalanced by the fact that virtually no other filmmaker is willing to tackle these subjects in such a straightforward manner.

For a movie on a variety of subjects involving doom and gloom, Lee's film is often brassy and funny. The film's male characters are portrayed as such juveniles that it would be difficult to argue against Lee's film having a bona fide feminist platform. One of the funnier sequences involves the men - who now include the police, mayor and all men of the city of Chicago - attempting to woo the women back to bed by playing slow jams on loud speakers, a move that amusingly backfires.

Lee has assembled a terrific cast here, including Wesley Snipes (as the leader of the Trojan gang), Nick Cannon (as the leader of the Spartans), Angela Bassett (as a neighborhood activist), Dave Chappelle (as a night club proprietor) and John Cusack (as a priest, who gives a fairly rousing speech against those who have enabled the slaughter of innocents in Chicago and nationwide).

Samuel L. Jackson pops up as a narrator known as Dolmedes, a trickster figure, of sorts, who was not included in Aristophanes' play. His name, I'd wager, is a nod to Dolemite, the Rudy Ray Moore character from the outrageous 1970's blaxploitation films, due to Jackson's braggadocious rapid-fire monologues that have a similar style of delivery. Jackson acts as a Greek chorus to the action of "Chi-Raq" and provides some of the film's best dialogue.

The other actors mostly speak in rhyming couplets that often include sentiments that sting. During one particular scene in which Bassett attempts to convince Parris' Lysistrata to take action and begin the "sex strike," she makes a telling comment on how the violence in Chicago's black neighborhoods is unlikely to sway politicians if the shootings in Stony Brook, Connecticut made no difference.

"Chi-Raq" is Lee at his ballsiest. Some folks are going to be put off by Lee's latest (in fact, some Chicagoans have taken offense to his film injecting humor into its proceedings), but it's obvious that the filmmaker isn't going to be fazed by that.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee was one of the best American filmmakers. His "Do the Right Thing" is, perhaps, the greatest film ever made about race relations and his "Malcolm X" and underrated "Clockers" are also vital.

Other than 2002's powerful "25th Hour" and his Hurricane Katrina documentary "When the Levees Broke," Lee's work in the 21st century has been a little scattershot. His "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" (a remake of the 1970's cult classic "Ganja and Hess") from earlier this year, for example, was a misfire. But "Chi-Raq" finds him back on stronger footing. I wouldn't say it ranks with his very best, but it's great to see him fired up and once again working with material that suits his great cinematic abilities.

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