DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee
FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, 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.
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.
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)