Tag Archives: Spike Lee

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

FEATURING: Stephen Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd

PLOT: A well-to-do doctor of anthropology gets stabbed with an ancient Ashanti dagger and becomes immortal but addicted to blood.

Still from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie’s vampire-origin premise is an uncommon one, but the movie is weighed down by a cold—bordering on somnolent—lead performance, a scattershot tone, and the fact that the most compelling scenes are largely uninvolved with the main action.

COMMENTS: The opening credits of Spike Lee’s latest movie are fully alive. Across the acting and production shout-outs, Lee shows off a very skilled street dancer (Charles “Lil Buck” Riley) performing a number of smooth, impressive moves in various Brooklyn street spots. The momentum continues with the opening scene proper, a lively gospel shout ceremony at “Lil’ Piece of Heaven” church. During the full-blooded, upbeat sermonizing, we see Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Williams) sitting alone in the back, noticeably separate from the rapt congregants. After this introduction, however, it seems that all the blood drains from the movie.

What follows is a sometimes dreamy, sometimes intellectual, and consistently tedious affair involving the realities of a modern, bookish vampire. Dr. Greene hosts big parties for intelligentsia at his large estate in Martha’s Vineyard (with grounds spanning 40 acres, no less). He chats amiably, but briefly, with the various educated bourgeoisie, before having to hightail it to his basement for some blood packs from the refrigerator. He emerges with a wine glass of blood; when an insistent guest tries it and spits it out, he glibly explains, “It’s organic.” And so comes and goes one of the few breaks from the largely unremitting monotony of the film.

Between his unfortunate conversion to vampirism and a personal spiritual revelation, he murders and drinks blood of various poor women of color. His traces of hyper-shy charm are smudged over by his callous and guileless manner. For reasons not entirely clear, he immediately falls in love with Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who was once married to his erstwhile assistant. She seems to hate everything and everyone, and has adopted the unfortunate habit of being 100% honest 100% of the time. She has a backstory to explain her current hostility to the world, but I found myself utterly incapable of seeing how that justifies her sheer unpleasantness. Throughout the movie, Spike Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay) dribbles in bits and pieces of mumblecore exchanges; where he should have focused on creating an atmosphere of angst and ambiguity, instead he makes each character no more than a projection of a type. Even the hammy characters from Blacula have more nuance and relatability.

There are some scenes of vitality and beauty. Whenever the action shuffles over to the church (all too infrequently), the movie  immediately gets a shot in the arm. And while I am not one to generally marvel at the visual splendor of a scene, the marriage on the private beach that takes place in the second half was a sheer joy just to look at. Unfortunately, I can only come to the conclusion that while the movie toyed with greatness, it came short in a number of ways. It may have been a worthy recommendation if it had been: more atmospheric, more puzzling, livelier, wittier, and so on. Had it thoroughly pursued any one of those directions, it may have been on to something. Instead, Spike Lee seems to want it all, and it ends up falling flat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with no one breathing down [Lee’s] neck, it’s free to zoom all over the place — from seriousness to high comedy to weird comedy to quietly anxious set pieces…  For better and sometimes worse, ‘Jesus’ is undiluted Lee — a half-committed attempt at a twisted genre film that freely gets lost down unexplored alleyways.”–Matt Prigge, Metro (contemporaneous)