We gave it an A
Erupting like a scalding geyser from the ground right beneath our feet, Spike Lee’s daring, dizzying, sympathetic, symphonic, vital, vehement Chi-Raq is the most urgently 2015 movie of 2015. It’s a perfect companion piece to the director’s Do the Right Thing — and more than 25 years after that seminal film, it similarly sledgehammers away on hot buttons while also lacquering itself in layers of gray, and planting within its core, for anyone with the eyes to see it, a classic message of hope.
Lee and cowriter Kevin Willmott’s thunderstorm of a screenplay is a quasi-musical, rhyming-verse adaptation of Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old play Lysistrata, in which the women of a warring society withhold sex until their men stop fighting. Set in modern day Chicago and starring Teyonah Parris as the feminist soldier Lysistrata and Nick Cannon as her gang leader boyfriend, the Greek-comic template is a marvelous conceit for a filmmaker like Lee to go crazy with. If he were an orchestra conductor, his arms would we waving wildly at the jubilant madness onscreen.
The relationship between the leads, of course, is only a thread of Lee’s characteristically messy story. Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious as a suave pimp narrator, and a subplot about the 99 percent of nonviolent black men of Chicago (led by Steve Harris) being unfairly punished for gang behavior is relevant beyond belief. For all its joyous humor, the movie’s timeliness, to be certain, is shattering. It’s opening across America two days after Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired by the mayor over the department’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting. One imagines that Lee regrets not getting a reference to McCarthy and McDonald into the film in time.
And that’s because Chi-Raq already runneth over with topical references. Sandy Hook, Ferguson, George Zimmerman, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Roger Goodell are just a few of the names in the news that get memorialized or mocked in the film. The Charleston church terrorist gets a mention that stings and infects: “Roof wants his country back,” says one character. “He can’t have it,” responds another.
John Cusack plays a pastor based on Chicago priest and social activist Michael Pfleger, and in a scene that vibrates in your brain for hours after its finished, he delivers an impassioned 10-minute sermon for a young girl slain by gang violence. (Jennifer Hudson is quite touching in a small role as the girl’s mother.) In the monologue, the priest chronicles the biography of a handgun, and screams at one point that the little girl is dead because “politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association.” What other film – and what other filmmaker – is taking on real issues and talking about them like this?
Perhaps his last few years of flops (including The Miracle at St. Anna and Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus) have energized Lee to make Chi-Raq with the full-throated, absolutely unapologized-for lightning that the subject matter deserves. His power-direction of big scenes – like a climactic 360-degree camera swirl around a colossal brass bed – and ribald sense of humor is present everywhere. Some viewers have already groused about a comic sequence in which a white Army general with a shrine to right-wing icons like Bush and Cheney on his wall (“What, no Hussein Obama?” asks Lysistrata) is seduced and blindfolded with a Confederate flag. The scene is not only funnier than anything on Saturday Night Live – it also explodes with the lifeblood of genuinely dangerous satire. As the one-man Greek chorus, Jackson’s rapid-fire delivery requires multiple viewings to absorb. One joke about the spillage of DNA on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress (in which he refers to President Clinton as “Wild Bill”) works precisely because it’s so randomly thrown into the mix.
Aristophanes’s ancient text is illuminated by Lee’s committed, bonkers musical technique and his generosity of message. Chi-Raq is a spectacular battle cry – and also a plea for pacifism. His critics have often labeled Lee as nothing more than a rabble-rouser (in whatever racist-adjacent verbiage that stereotype takes), but anyone who’s actually watched Jungle Fever or Malcolm X or Clockers or Get on the Bus or 4 Little Girls or 25th Hour or When the Levees Broke knows that he strives for cultural solutions via his moviemaking. That was mercifully highlighted in November, when Lee was awarded an Honorary Oscar by the Board of Governors. In a verbose 18-minute long speech – brevity has never been Lee’s strongest suit – he encouraged the Academy Awards to “get some flavor up in here.”
We’ll see about that. The idea of Chi-Raq receiving a Best Picture nomination is so unfathomable as to be a fantasy. But what about Lee and Willmott’s dense, gorgeously woven adapted screenplay? Or the dazzling cinematography by maestro lenser Matthew Libatique? Or the magnificent musical score by Terrence Blanchard? Or Nick Cannon’s furious original song, “Pray 4 My City”? Or the performances by Parris or Jackson or Hudson or even Cusack? Is it going to be #OscarsSoWhite, all over again? Your move, Academy. A