The world is no stranger to Spike Lee’s passionate, one-of-a-kind temperament. In recent years, despite whatever controversies the filmmaker’s inner fire has concocted in real life, his passion has not always translated into the sort of cinematic impact and vibrance we've come to expect from his best work. Fortunately, these are two qualities Chi-Raq proudly wears on its sleeves, even if the rowdiness of this latest joint risks dividing audiences.
Chi-Raq hits the ground running, greeting audiences not with credits but with the pulse-pounding beats of “Pray 4 My City,” combined with a gigantic crimson-colored “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” title card and a plea from Rev. Michael Pfleger. It's a bit like asking your partner to walk down the aisle on the first date, and while the initial audiovisual (and political) assault may prove irksome right off the bat, the urgency is warranted when a city manages to amass more deaths each year than U.S. soldiers abroad.
Responsible for the bloodletting are two gangs, Spartans and Trojans, one dressed in purple and the other garbed in orange, each competing for dominance over Chicago’s South Side. When not actually killing the competition, they sing about it, as they do early on in a bombastic concert hosted by Spartans’ leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). Besides recalling the exhilarating performances of NWA in Straight Outta Compton, which was also wonderfully shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, this sequence establishes a distinct kind of energy – rage, even. It's a style that continues to permeate through the film.
Guiding viewers through the mad flow is the brightly-dressed Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-man Greek chorus. Dolmedes doesn’t appear in Chi-Raq’s source material, the Greek comedy Lysistrata written in 411 B.C, but his appearance is a high point and no doubt rounds out a great year for the actor. To honor the words of Aristophanes, Lee and Kevin Wilmott’s screenplay employs rhyming to deliver joy, pain and, surprisingly, current events, through an attempt to halt violence via a sex strike organized by Chi-Raq’s girlfriend (Teyonah Parris).
As a natural-born siren turned skipper of the movement, Parris is simultaneously commanding and charismatic here in what is undoubtedly a star-making turn. Other surprises include Nick Cannon, who defies any and all reservations and wears his tough gangster coat well, as well as an outrageously hilarious Steve Harris. Other welcome cameos arise in the form Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, John Cusack (sporting a hoarse voice), and the intense Angela Bassett who tosses Lysistrata strike a one-up by forcing it to the front door of individuals in power.
Here’s where the film falls into trouble: though it sheds light on the gun deaths that ail modern-day America, said commentary is delivered through a woman’s sex strike. The combination is a weird one, with social commentary immediately follwoing some of the films weirdest, most absurdly comedic sequences (involving choreographed dancing and a Confederate-flag loving General, to name just a couple). Social protests (including Black Lives Matter) recieve heft screentime, and at times drown out the central narrative, but the result is a tonal mix that surely won't sit right with all. Zigzagging between documentary and entertainment, Chi-Raq can’t quite seem to settle on what it is, but then, perhaps it doesn't care to. By cruising along with little convention in its craft, Chi-Raq covers all the real-world topics it wants to through (and despite) its bewildering premise. By seemingly sidelining narrative coherence to bring forth its themes, the film offers an experience that is both special and irritating (and often at the same time). There’s no denying, however, that this is Lee’s – and perhaps cinema’s – most timely film in some time.
Chi-Raq will surely prove a hard sell due to its uncommon portrayal of a relatable issue. The film doesn’t care if it gets the audience’s love, but what it will do is grant its viewers a good old fashioned, “what the hell”. Whether you'll regard the experience as eye opening or a waste of time depends on your own sensibilities. I found myself firmly among the former.