Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Directed by Spike Lee
What we see here with Chi-Raq is the Spike Lee of Bamboozled. That 2000 film was an extraordinarily bleak satire that seemed to epitomize Lee's ultimate frustration with the use of black culture within the greater pop culture. Bamboozled is a troubled film, and handles highly delicate material with the care of a spoiled toddler, but it is one of the filmmaker's best films and is still undervalued today. Chi-Raq is the first film that he's made since that has anywhere near that kind of bite and attitude, and it's easily the best film he's made since 2002's 25th Hour. Chi-Raq is sloppy, energetic, problematic, but also brilliantly cheeky. Lee has never been one to take somber tales and tell them with gloom - though he tried that with The Miracle at St. Anna and it produced his most sanctimonious film and no one went to see it - while we know Lee will always have a unique viewpoint on contemporary issues, who would have guessed that he would turn to the ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes for inspiration? Using the Greek playwright's famed Lysistrata as a template, Lee crafts cinema's most biting take on the gangland violence that has plagued areas of Chicago for the entirety of this short century. In classic Lee fashion, Chi-Raq opens brazenly, we hear a song bemoaning the state of gangland Chicago with nothing on the screen but the song's pleading lyrics. The lyrics are bold, straightforward and threatening, and Lee follows that with statistics showing that more lives have been lost to the gun violence in Chicago since 2001 than the two American military tours through the Middle East in that same time. Lee doesn't care if you need the context, he's going to make sure you get the appropriate info and then some.
Lee wrote the script with Kevin Willmott, a fellow filmmaker but also a professor at the University of Kansas. Like Lee, Willmott's films often deal with race, particularly the struggle of black Americans. We don't get far into Chi-Raq before Lee and Willmott's script draws direct parallels between the gang wars and specific American racial injustices, both socioeconomic and otherwise. Spike Lee has never been subtle, and more often then not we have to sit through characters looking into the screen during his films and telling you directly what the specific message is. What separates him from the Paul Haggises of the world is that his message is never redundant, it is often one that would never appear in any other mainstream film, and it is likely the reason why it takes such a struggle to get his films made these days. Even by today's standards, Lysistrata has a risqué plot to borrow from, but Lee digs in vigorously. He even contrives the character of Dolmedes (played with particular flair and brilliant comedic timing by Samuel L. Jackson), the film's one-man Greek chorus who strides into the story every 15-20 minutes or so to give us a rundown on the progress of the narrative. He tells us the story of a woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) who is in a relationship with a rapper and gangster named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). Chi-Raq is the face of the local Spartan gang, who are caught in a perpetual war with the other local gang, the Trojans, who are led by the eccentric Cyclops (an eye-patched Wesley Snipes). The war between the Spartans and the Trojans has spilled over into the streets of the innocent, and now its even children, playing outside who are getting killed by stray bullets by senseless thugs.
When the young daughter of Irene (Jennifer Hudson) is murdered in cold blood, in broad daylight, for all the neighborhood to see, the young mother is besotted. Her agony radiates through the streets and Lysistrata watches, heartbroken, with a new urge to make a difference. When she meets Miss Helen (a serene Angela Bassett), an older woman who lives across the street from Chi-Raq, she is introduced to an interesting concept. Miss Helen explains that when the physicality of men becomes overwrought, you can use that physicality against them. Under Miss Helen's guidance, Lysistrata begins a sex strike. With fellow Spartan ladies, she visits the home of Indigo (Michelle Mitchenor), Cyclops' main woman and explains the plan. After some quibbles, Lysistrata convinces the women of both the Trojans and the Spartans to take part in her sex strike, and the game is on. Both Cyclops and Chi-Raq are initially tickled by the strike, but they don't realize how quickly it has spread. The brothels, the strip clubs, the phone sex lines and even pornography has completely ceased. It gets to that even men unaffiliated with gang violence begin losing their nerve. Everything comes to a head when Lysistrata, backed by an entire army of women equipped with resolve and chastity belts, take hold of the local armory and hold it hostage until their demands for peace are met. Their sex strike begins to spread internationally, while the mayor of Chicago (D.B. Sweeney) begins putting pressure on the local police commissioner (Harry Lennix) to smoke the women out using R&B songs. By the film's final act, Lee has allowed the narrative to spin into complete surreality. This is what he does best, document the racial climate as a circus and a farce, where the only real danger is presented to people of color.
Perhaps the greatest trick that Spike Lee ever pulled was turning heavy-handedness into a virtue. Even in adaptation, his commitment to the source material is such that the dialogue is actually written in verse. The gender politics of Chi-Raq can be dissected thoroughly, and Lee has always been someone who preaches the plight of blacks while seemingly forgetting that half of them are women. The sexualization of Lysistrata and her army is a given, considering the nature of the plot, but its only ever explored in how it effects the men. But this is satire, and as he's always want to do, Lee measures the ridiculousness of his story against the severity of reality. The names of Michael Brown, Trayvon Marton and Tamir Rice (among others) are shouted by the characters, and while the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' is never used specifically, it's obvious that the film is simpatico with the movement. This is never made clearer than with the odd but surprisingly winning placement of John Cusack as Catholic Father Mike Corridan. Corridan is the town's spiritual center, which is unique considering he seems to be the only white person in the neighborhood - he's certainly the only white character that Chi-Raq lends any form of credence. Cusack's performance here is in keeping with his schizophrenic work over the last few years; since 2009, the actor has been seemingly searching out bizarre, transgressive roles ranging from the violent patriarch in Maps to the Stars or the psychotic murderer of The Paperboy. He's mostly been very bad in these parts, because he's been stretching his abilities into places he can't really go (did I mention he plays Nixon in Lee Daniels' The Butler?). In Chi-Raq he's given a lengthy monologue at the funeral of Irene's daughter. Corridan's speech spills over from community outreach into criticism of mass incarceration and the unhealthy relationship between the NRA and the Republican party. It's the kind of space rocket self-righteousness that can sometime get Lee in trouble, but Cusack nails the scene, and cements Chi-Raq's stance politically. There's a specific target for the movie's venom, and Cusack and Lee are unafraid to namecheck.
Cusack is one of many gems within what is a great ensemble cast. Angela Bassett is given one of her best roles in many years as Miss Helen. This character has been played often in American films - the mourning black mother - but Bassett plays the role smartly, giving the character wit and agency. Most filmmakers would have cut a scene in which Helen is confronted by an insurance salesman (played by a Lee mainstay Roger Guenveur Smith) who suggests mothers take a life insurance plan out on their young black sons. Helen is rightfully enraged at the suggestion, but Bassett moves the scene beyond outraged histrionics. Her grasp of the sense of pain and grief, both in that scene and throughout the film, gives the film its true heart. Snipes peppers the enigmatic Cyclops with hilarious oddities, while performers like Dave Chapelle and Irma P. Hall come in for great one-scene performances, one hilarious and the other one thoughtful. As Chi-Raq (we learn his actual name is Demetrius) Nick Cannon shows more ability here than he'd previously been given the opportunity to show. The character is surprisingly dense in his variety of emotions, and Cannon portrays an alacrity of bouncing through all those emotions without betraying Chi-Raq's nature. It wasn't until after I finished Chi-Raq that I realized that Teyonah Parris is also the actress who portrayed Dawn on several seasons of Mad Men. It's hard to find two characters more dissimilar. What Lee asks from Parris is here is pretty hefty. She's meant to be eye candy, but she is also a mouthpiece. So much is expected from her sexually and intellectually, and yet Parris still finds time to craft a real performance out of this woman. What if Lee had gotten his original casting choices of Kanye West and La La Anthony? I'm not sure we'd be singing the film's praises.
It's been a long time since I've truly liked a Spike Lee film, but the filmmaker of the 80's and 90's is one of the few true cinematic geniuses. His films may be marketed as niche African American films, but they are actually some of the most significant movies of the Twentieth Century, and they move beyond race, into a discourse where most commercial cinema refuses to go. Chi-Raq is a callback to the director's much more subversive ways, the unafraid filmmaker who refuses to walk on eggshells even it ends up making something that's angry. Like his best work, Chi-Raq understands that it takes nuance to have debates about race, but that nuance is too often drowned out by hateful rhetoric. The way Lee plays with that rhetoric in this film is some of the best comedic work of his career. It was shot over the summer and seemingly rushed out to a Fall release. That rush doesn't show itself in the movie and, in fact, lends to the topical nature of the film. When a character in the film calls Ben Carson out by name, it has more of an effect than if the film had come out in the Spring. Moreover, a film like Chi-Raq is important now, and not just because of the dire situation in Chicago, but because of the precipice that America stands at with race. As different cultures, genders, sexualities get more accepted, louder are the voices of the Trumps who speak violently against the diversity on which this country is built upon. The brutal civil wars at the heart of Chicago is a problem of America's creating. It's only one consequence of a country (as Wesley Morris so beautifully put it) that wants to think its better than a history it can't stop repeating. I'm not sure what it says about Spike Lee that the ending of Chi-Raq is much more optimistic than Bamboozled or his 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing. Perhaps even he can see the light at the end of the tunnel? Even if he does, he knows there's still a lot more tunnel left till we get there.