When Spike Lee is angry, his movies crackle. His best films have a riotous touch, and scream for his viewers to wake up! and look at their communities. In Do the Right Thing, Lee delicately showed how casual, modern racism can boil over into brutality. In Bamboozled, Lee comedically showed how television networks repackage racism as entertainment and how the black community is complacent by partaking in modern minstrel shows. In He Got Game, colleges and prisons both open their gates to black athletes, but re-imprison them after they’ve done their recruiting job. In 25th Hour, Lee tackled post-9/11 racism by having Edward Norton look into a mirror and spew hateful epitaphs at every world group, only to end by maligning himself because he’s entirely isolated and alone.
We haven’t had an angry Spike Lee joint in a while. Lee’s spent more than a decade making great (The Inside Man) to middling (Oldboy) popcorn flicks and micro-budgeted personal films (Red Hook Summer). Chi-Raq is a megaphone that the angry and impassioned Spike Lee is back. But there’s so much swagger in Chi-Raq that it’s a little uneven; this movie is both small and immense, the same way that violence within a community can feel isolated to an area, but is also reveals a systemic worldwide problem. Still, a marching Lee is vital to American cinema.
What is Lee marching against? On a small-scale it’s the black-on-black violence that’s alarming nationwide, but specifically within Chicago, where more American people have been killed by gun violence in their neighborhood streets than the two tours of American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. On a larger scale, it’s about the buffoonery of men worldwide whose priorities are to assume positions of power, and to wave colors instead of helping raise the children of their lovers, sisters, and mothers.
That last sentence was an attempt to rhyme, because the first ballsy move that Lee takes with Chi-Raq is to have almost all of the dialogue rhyme in verse. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have adapted a Greek comi-tragedy, Lysistrata by Aristophanes—written in 411 B.C.(!)—about women banding together to deny sex to all men, in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. The leader in Chi-Raq is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, a standout from Dear White People, who gets a proper lead role her), a young woman who’s dating the leader of the Trojans (Nick Cannon) who is leading a turf war against the Spartans (led by a bedazzled-eye-patch-wearing Wesley Snipes) and the casualties include not just those in purple or orange, but also innocent children who are hit by stray bullets. After seeing a neighboring child covered by a sheet, her mother screaming in the street, and no witnesses coming forward, Lysistrata crosses the color lines to get all the neighborhood women to “lock it up” with the revolutionary chant of “no peace, no pussy.” (Sidebar: Though lacking that vulgar slogan, this approach did in fact help end a recent war, the 2003 Liberian Civil War.)
The sex strike allows Lee to do two things; first, empower the women who, due to lack of quality jobs, housing, etc. have cyclically been laying down for years. In taking ownership over the bodies, they can not only exert power, but tap into the real womanhood of community protection and nurtured enrichment for future generations. Second, Lee makes fun of the men, who are more concerned with what women choose to do with their bodies than they are with dead bodies. From the strip club (featuring a hilarious cameo from Dave Chappelle), to men’s clubs, to the armory, all the way to the Mayor’s office, the men are in a frenzy to end the sex strike—on their own terms. Even when women exert power, the men try to maintain their manhood by attempting to “contain the situation” through rolling out tanks Lee’s painted “penis envy” on. (In perfect Mad Magazine style, Lee also has a National Guard general hump a cannon while blindfolded by a Confederate flag).
While the sex strike allows Lee to entertain with gags on masculinity being threatened by women who roar, Lee also sermonizes about the economic system, prison system and police brutality that allow this black-on-black violence to occur for their own benefit. Just like the canon-humping, Lee isn’t subtle in this regard. His former Do the Right Thing disc-jockey compatriot Samuel L. Jackson returns to act as the silky-smooth fourth-wall-breaking narrator/one man Greek chorus, Dolmedes. And in one sidebar, he’s flanked by a young black man and a white cop, and both fire rounds at the audience.
Lee distributes blame equally. For instance, he has a preacher/griever/hype man (John Cusack, going full-on Nic Cage, plays Father Mike like Pastor Troy) sermonize on the profits and extra funding that the prisons and police receive via a fear of black violence, and then juxtaposes that with a black insurance salesman trying to sell a neighborhood woman (Angela Bassett) life insurance on her nephew because he’s more likely to be shot in their neighborhood. She should be taken care of if that were to happen. Profits don’t look for solutions, they look for prey.
Now, as enraging as Chi-Raq is and as exciting as it is to see Lee flex various narrative techniques—this film is part play, part musical, part text message—it doesn’t always hit the target. Victims are merely zipped up body bags, the conclusion (though satirical) is too wishful, and the message gets so big that sometimes it devours or slightly contradicts itself (attempting to jail Cannon becomes a priority, for instance). And Chi-Raq can also become repetitive without new information. But Lee wants to both entertain and educate. (Between Chi-Raq and The Big Short it’s exciting that December 2015 has two inventive fourth-wall breaking tragi-comedies that want to inform viewers on systemic problems in America as equally as they desire to entertain them). Every time Chi-Raq starts to meander or being to feel like a messy collage, Lee always reloads with a ramped up scenario that delightfully skewers violent machismo with comedic precision.
Chi-Raq is auteur-authored polemic filmmaking. It tickles but concludes with an exclaimed “Wake up!” from Jackson (a nice re-mix of his Senor Love Daddy persona who wakes up the audience in Do the Right Thing). And that’s just what we need from Lee. Especially during a week in which our nation is again made aware that these shootings are sickeningly routine.
Chi-Raq is currently in 300 theaters nationwide, starting today.