At cinemas nationwide and on VOD
Spike Lee is a man revitalised. Never shy of hurling a surfeit of ideas at any particular topic, Chi-Raq is a heady stew of disparate elements that aren’t always complementary, but is as full of spice, absurdity and biting acidity as his remake of Oldboy was bland and weak. Updating Aristophanes‘ racy comedy Lysistrata 2500 years to present-day Chicago, Lee depicts a delapidated urban sprawl rent asunder by warfare between two gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans. As an eleven year-old is killed in the crossfire, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Spartan leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), decides enough is enough. Enlisting every woman in the area, she imposes a sex ban, to be lifted only when when the guns have been set aside.
Apart from the eye-catching story, what really sets Chi-Raq apart is the execution. It’s ostensibly a hip-hop musical with every line spoken in verse. It’s not the first of its kind (Sion Sono’s demented Tokyo Tribe is a cartoonish take on the concept), but it’s an outlandish, novel method of dealing with its weighty themes. This occasionally works against it, as it risks tonal confusion when the tragic elements like the death of children clashes with the overt silliness of its humour. However, there is so much to applaud in this ambitious, sprawling work of urgent political import and righteous anger that any missteps can be forgiven.
A particular masterstroke is the knowing, pop-culture riffing one-man Greek chorus Dolmedes, played with swaggering gusto by a perma-grinning Samuel L. Jackson in a dizzying array of ludicrous Iceberg Slim-style pimp suits. He works as both a palatable injection of exposition and a constant undermining of the alpha dog posturing machismo of Chi-Raq and his gun-addicted brethren.
John Cusack is also afforded one incredible scene as the neighbourhood pastor literally preaching to the converted as he voices the pain and frustration of a beleaguered community. Like Lee’s approach in general, it’s not subtle but it is a summation of his message in one compact, electrifying moment of cathartic proselytisation. There is a question there as to how the sole Caucasian in the main cast is afforded so much authority, but it’s never addressed.
The undoubted jewel in the film’s crown however is the dazzling Teyonah Parris. The former Mad Men star shows weapons grade charisma and appeal in her first attempt at carrying a film. ‘A woman like no other,’ Dolmedes comments approvingly and you could easily believe it. At times it feels like she holds the entire project together with the sheer force of her presence.
Chi-Raq will undoubtedly prove divisive. It’s loud, brash, and exhausting to watch at times. It certainly makes one want to hop straight into bed by the end, but for a well-earned kip. For all its flaws though, it can’t be denied that this is bold, original film making from one of cinema’s great polemicists.