With Chi-Raq, Spike Lee is vital again. This isn’t to say I agree with all of the movie’s politics or that he’s made a perfect film. What I mean is that he’s once again brought something necessary to the screen in a way that no other director could. This, after many years away, is the return of the artist who gave us School Daze, She’s Gotta Have It, Bamboozled and Do the Right Thing.
Others will say that list doesn’t represent Lee’s best films. Yet I’d argue that these are his most urgent, energetic and wildly creative projects. They take the most risks, ruffle the most feathers and — in my experience — deliver the most returns. The same can be said of Chi-Raq, a fiery sex comedy that also happens to be about the epidemic of gun violence on Chicago’s South Side.
The cheeky conceit of the film is to transplant a play from ancient Greece — Lysistrata, by Aristophones — to contemporary urban America. Just as the women in the play withhold sex from their men until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War, here a young woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) leads a sex strike in her war-torn Chicago community until the men of two rival gangs put away their guns.
It’s worth noting that Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is quite funny, especially in its bawdy wordplay. And so Chi-Raq isn’t a case of Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott forcing gags onto a tragedy. In fact, it’s somewhat in line with Willmott’s 2004 directorial effort C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, an alternate American history that brought satire to something as daunting as slavery. These are filmmakers unafraid to tackle the toughest of topics with irreverence and wit.
Parris negotiates both the angry tragedy of the film and its heightened comedy equally well; this should be a star-making performance.
And Chi-Raq is witty — in its own bawdy wordplay, including the women’s declarations of chastity; in Samuel L. Jackson’s rhymed, riotous narration as Dolmedes; and in a silly, seductive dance-off between a group of men and a group of women. In many ways, and like School Daze, this could qualify as a musical.
It’s also unexpectedly moving – again, like the best Spike Lee movies. As the neighborhood priest (modeled after Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger), John Cusack delivers a fiery sermon about the life of a gun, and it turns out the actor can preach. At another point, two gang members who have been permanently wounded by gunshots share their new reality in a mournful aside with Dolmedes. Especially touching is the journey Lysistrata makes from being the self-involved eye candy of rapper and gang leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) to becoming an enlightened and empowered community activist.
As Lysistrata, Parris negotiates both the angry tragedy of the film and its heightened comedy equally well; this should be a star-making performance. A supporting player — and bright spot — in 2014’s Dear White People, where she played an aspiring Internet celebrity, Parris gives the sort of poetry-slam performance that her character in that film would have killed for.
Visually, Chi-Raq is as alive as anything Lee has done. An opening sequence at one of Chi-Raq’s concerts is eerily beautiful, even as the song he performs – “Pray 4 My City” – is doomed and gloomy. The audience, with glowing sticks held above their heads, moves in choreographed unison, so that it feels less like a concert scene and more like a choreographed production number. Later, when Chi-Raq and Lysistrata square off for a confrontational “sex match,” Lee employs his signature dolly shot, in which a character is pulled forward seemingly without any effort of their own. Here it emphasizes that Lysistrata and Chi-Raq have become caught up in a movement much larger than themselves, even if they’re going to try and resolve it with something as personal as their bodies.
Chi-Raq concludes with another callback to Lee’s earlier work, as Dolmedes once again addresses the camera and shouts, “Wake up!” just as Laurence Fishburne did in School Daze. Considering that film, too, was a musical comedy aimed at awakening political consciousness, could one say that Chi-Raq is a case of a late-career filmmaker lazily repeating himself? Hardly. It’s more like Lee is getting his groove back.