I have never seen a film like Chi-Raq before.
Spike Lee, visionary filmmaker behind many acclaimed movies that take an incisive look into problems of race in American culture (namely classics such as 1989's Do the Right Thing and 1992's Malcolm X), has had somewhat of a creative slump lately. His movie before this one, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, passed by with mediocre reviews and barely any attention. Before that, his remake of Oldboy didn't have much to say and was laughably bad.
With Chi-Raq, Lee proves that not only does he have a lot to say in the present day and age, he's still perfectly capable of structuring a remarkable film around the kind of messages that our country needs to hear right now. Chi-Raq is passionately provocative, endlessly creative, and societally necessary: a furious protest innovatively wrapped in film form.
I've had a lot of trouble describing this movie to friends and family and strangers and all the people I urge to see it. An accurate description of the film would probably be enough to convince many to seek it out, so I'll do my best:
Chi-Raq is a satirical musical comedy/drama based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes (the movie is written almost entirely in rhyming verse!), redone to tell the story of powerful women in South Side, Chicago that withhold sex from their men until peace arises in an attempt to stop the gang violence and murder of innocents that their partners are propagating. It also doubles as both a Black Lives Matter proclamation and an anti-gun protest.
Yeah. Oh, and Samuel L. Jackson is a one man Greek chorus. Interested yet?
If you're turned off by a political agenda that doesn't coexist with yours, I understand- but I still ask that you give this movie a chance. Chi-Raq is equally concerned with social justice reform as it is with being a one of a kind experience.
It kicks off with a profound sense of importance: a stirring rap song about violence in Chicago booms out, lyrics on screen. Themes are introduced throughout the song: violence begetting violence, the deaths of innocent children, and race relations. Immediately after the song, "THIS IS AN EMERGENCY" flashes several times to the sound of sirens, followed by statistics concerning deaths of black youth by gun violence in Chicago. The protest has begun.
After Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes introduces the story, Chi-Raq opens with a shooting at a concert followed by a jarring sex scene. Jarring, because as I excitedly mentioned before, most of the movie's dialogue is written in rhyming verse (just as Aristophanes' Lysistrata was). Watching a sensual scene between Lysistrata and her rapper/gang leader boyfriend that's written entirely in verse shows us what kind of controlled tonal chaos we can expect.
Chi-Raq more than successfully strikes a balance between provocation, situational comedy, emotional devastation, rousing hope, and even makes room for some musical/dance numbers. It's a cinematic contradiction that transforms into something essential, courtesy of its thematic through line of social justice.
Spike Lee's deft and spirited direction lets these important facets meld naturally while his screenplay works to combine the crude comedy of Aristophanes with Chicago slang. The results are frequently hilarious and always entertaining, adding to Chi-Raq's irresistible uniqueness with a satirical flair. Tonally, its outrageous nature is the closest I've ever seen a film come to realizing the brash farce of Aristophanes' work. It's an impressive feat.
Even more impressive is Lee's accomplishment in using this brand of satire to make a significant statement. Chi-Raq isn't just about the Black Lives Matter and anti-gun movements- it is a brave part of those movements. Christian films could learn a million or two things from this masterpiece concerning how to artfully push an agenda.
One standout scene that exemplifies this juxtaposition is a sermon delivered by John Cusack's priest. It begins with a inspiring worship number, before erupting into an immensely powerful sermon about valuing human life and the religious ethics of weaponry. As the film itself often does, the sermon ends with a respectful reminder of the real-life victims of violence in black communities. It's nothing less than a cinematic punch to the heart of society.
And the performances! Teyonah Parris is absolutely electrifying as Lysistrata. Samuel L. Jackson is in fine form as the chorus, delivering rhyming comedy with great ease. Nick Cannon follows his character's progression quite convincingly. John Cusack steals every scene he's in as the openminded, justice-oriented priest. Every actor and actress here gives Chi-Raq their best.
Is Chi-Raq technically perfect? Probably not. One original song felt heavy-handed, and sometimes the genre balancing leans a bit too much to one side. But this film is something else. It's already controversial, I firmly believe it'll stand the test of time, and it deserves your attention. As I write this review, news is breaking about the senseless shooting of Nicholas Robertson, and filmmakers are reacting vehemently on social media. Please, do yourself and your culture a favor and experience Chi-Raq: one of this year's best cinematic reactions.