What happened to Spike Lee? When he emerged in the 80s he seemed like an incredibly vital voice who would go on to be a major figure in American cinema and for about a decade that was certainly the case but things started to go a little off the rails somewhere in the late 90s and since then there’s been a bit of a split in Spike Lee’s work as he found himself increasingly unable to hit a sweet spot between his sometimes wild vision and mainstream accessibility. On one hand we got movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and Bamboozled which emphasized some of the filmmakers more alienating stylistic traits, on the other hand we got movies like the Oldboy remake which seems to have been a naked attempt to make money and stay relevant in Hollywood, and then we get movies like Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna which somewhat awkwardly attempt to do both. Scattered in-between we’ve seen a couple of triumphs like 25th Hour but also a lot of decent but minor efforts like Red Hook Summer and odd little documentary side projects like Passing Strange and Bad 25. In other words, the dude’s filmography has been all over the place, but the broad pattern remains: energetic political provocations and slightly misjudged Hollywood efforts. His latest movie, Chi-Raq plainly falls in the former camp but it does so with more success than we’ve seen from this brand of Spike Lee joint in a while.
Chi-Raq is a rip-roaring satire adapted from Aristophanes’ Ancient Greek satire “Lysistrata” in which all the women of Greece swore off sex in order to force the men of the country to end the Peloponnesian War, which was an ongoing conflict when Aristophanes wrote the play. For the film this action has been moved to the violent streets of South Chicago and focuses in on a woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who is the girlfriend to a man named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), who is the leader of a purple clad gang called The Spartans. Chi-Raq is currently in an unending war with an Orange wearing gang called The Trojans led by an eye-patch wearing man named Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). This relationship is by all accounts very hot and heavy, but Lysistrata becomes increasingly conflicted about her paramour after a little girl is caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. After hearing about a successful sex strike which ended a civil war in Liberia Lysistrata considers forming her own sex strike in Chicago and rallies all the local women around it, which quickly causes all hell to break loose.
Spike Lee is really going for broke with this movie and sets it in a sort of exaggerated and broadly comedic world where crazy stuff happens and everything is exaggerated. As you can tell by the names he’s gone all in on the Greek origins of this concept and has even gone so far to include Samul L. Jackson as a fourth wall breaking narrator of sorts who stands in for the chorus… oh and most of the dialogue in the movie is in a rhyming verse that’s sort of a cross between iambic pentameter and hip-hop. Yeah, the movie’s batshit, but not necessarily in a bad way. Before you roll your eyes at any of this it’s probably worth remembering that the Greek theater that the story derives from was pretty nutty itself. This was a theatrical form where there was a chorus on stage chanting, plots were known to be resolved by gods swooping in on machines, and all the actors were wearing wood masks. I read Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” in college and can attest that even by Greek theatrical standards it is particularly crazy and was filled with bawdy jokes that would make Amy Schumer blush. This is a play that climaxes with all the male actors walking around wearing giant erect phalluses in order to represent the characters’ blue balls so no matter how nutty Lee’s movie gets one has to sit back and remember that he is ultimately working off of a very specific tradition and I was consistently interested in the ways he was able modernize a lot of this material.
That having been said, this is a movie that is so over-brimming with ideas that it frequently loses focus and goes a bit off the rails. The film’s central high concept would seem to make a pretty strong statement about black-on-black violence and I suspect that when Spike Lee originally envisioned the project it had a stronger focus on that one issue but that as race relations became more and more topical in the wake of the #blacklivesmatter movement Lee found himself trying to fit more and more things into the movie. All too often the movie seems to forget all about the central sex strike concept in order to go off on other tangents like shaming the life insurance industry or displaying fifteen minute sermons about gun control by a catholic priest played by John Cusack to speaks like a black pastor. It also goes down some rather questionable comedic paths like a running gag about a guy named Oedipus or an extended bit of cartoonish crudity in which the Lysistrada character seduces a strange Southern born military officer who wears confederate flag underwear in an attempt to commandeer a military base… yeah that happens. In fact the whole movie starts to get especially weird in its final act where it starts to resemble some kind of radical 1960s hippie movie like Wild in the Streets except with very current references which may or may not make sense to people watching the movie a few years down the line.
To be clear this is definitely a movie that is preaching to the choir, I would not send a Republican in to see it and expect them to be persuaded about much of anything. Also, even for those who are already on the film’s side it doesn’t really offer a lot of realistic solutions to the various issues that are brought up. Sure this sex strike is proposed but it isn’t really interested in presenting any plausible way that such a thing would catch on. In the movie it just sort of works and all the women just jump on board. Other ideas about ending the cycle of violence like gun control are brought up but the movie also seems to understand just how monumentally difficult it is going to be to get something like that to change. If anything this is mostly a movie about just how untenable the situation is on the streets of cities like Chicago and just how frustrating it is that it seems impossible to do anything about it, but again this is in keeping with the spirit of Aristophanes’ play, which was being written right in the midst of the seemingly endless and highly destructive Peloponnesian War and had a similar sort of fatalism hidden in its unrealistically successful solution to the conflict it was addressing.
Interestingly, I saw Chi-Raq the day after I saw the movie Brooklyn and oh boy could two movies not be any more different. I don’t just mean that because of the obvious differences that the two movies have in tone and setting, but rather in their ambitions. Brooklyn is a movie that makes very few missteps because it plays things very safe, goes down expected avenues, and for all its seeming perfection ends up feeling like something I’m not going to remember for long. Chi-Raq by contrast is a movie that is fascinating in its recklessness and its energy. It was like going to a punk rock show immediately after listening to a lounge act. That isn’t to say I like one approach over the other (there’s a place for both kinds of movies) but the contrast really illustrated something about why this movie appealed to me even though I suspect that a lot of people are really going to hate this thing. The movie is undoubtedly flawed but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glued to the screen for the entire running time and while I wouldn’t call it a laugh riot it definitely has a wit to it that carries it and more than most movies I see I really can’t wait to see it again.
*** out of Four