Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions, R)

Chi-Raq 75Chi-Raq offers plenty of examples of Spike being Spike.

 

 

 

 

Chi-Raq 500

Much has been made about the internet titans getting into film production this year. Of course, Netflix funded Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, distributed it themselves (including theatrically), and had it available to stream on their website the same day that it received its modest theatrical push. Elsewhere, Amazon Studios funded the new Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq, and while they’re letting Roadside Attractions handle its theatrical distribution, Amazon is taking it from there, with the rights to all other forms of media. And while I vastly prefer Netflix to Amazon as an entity (“vastly” is an understatement—it’s like comparing Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan), I do have to hand round one in the movie production wars to Amazon—Chi-Raq is a much better film than Beasts of No Nation.

But then, you get what you pay for. Amazon was smart to work with Spike Lee, who while maybe not reliable is incapable of making an outright boring film, where Fukunaga is more of an overrated fad, all but sure to be forgotten within a few years’ time.  (I’m sorry, but True Detective sucks. Sin Nombre sucks. But this review isn’t about that.) It’s interesting to compare these two films side by side (what’s to be made of each corporation’s first major film production focusing on black characters?—regardless, it’s smart, as they’re a very under-represented demographic in the movie industry), as Beasts plays at being subtle in what it’s telling you where Chi-Raq hits you over the head with it; Mr. Lee has never been known for his subtlety. However, Beasts is fairly pretentious and full of itself, where Chi-Raq is vital and valid and worms its way into your head as something to think about for well after it’s over.

Spike spoke at Webster University this past September, and while he was mostly moot on the subject of Chi-Raq, he said multiple times that it was a movie that would save lives. Seeing the film, one might be inclined to debate this point with him, but it is apparent that he’s trying, which is a lot more than can be said for Fukunaga.

The premise here is based on Aristophanes’ play “Lysistrata,” which has its female characters withholding sex from their male partners until the males stop making war with one another. Of course in this film the setting is updated from ancient Greece to modern Chicago, where, the film points out, we’ve lost more U.S. citizens to murder since 2001 than we have in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined over the same period of time. Our Lysistrata in Chi-Raq keeps that name and is played by Teyonah Parris (Dawn on Mad Men, or Coco in last year’s Dear White People), who is the girlfriend of a gang leader/rapper who takes on his city’s derogatory nickname as his moniker, and is played by Nick Cannon. Though murder is rampant, the one that pushes Lysistrata over the edge is that of a young girl, and an encounter Lysistrata has with said girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) shortly after the fact.

While Parris is admirable as Lysistrata, the real highlight of the film for me is Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, the film’s one-man Greek chorus, who speaks exclusively in rhyme (the whole film does, really). Anytime he’s on the screen is like magic (Spike always has been one of the best directors at harnessing Jackson’s considerable talent), and I found myself anxiously awaiting his next appearance in between them, as he only pops up in the film here and there. Further, I kept trying to scribble down his lines of dialogue in the dark, but they come so fast, so complex, and so funny, I never really succeeded. Suffice it to say that his description of Lysistrata’s physical beauty toward the beginning of the film is particularly memorable.

And it’s interesting that Lysistrata is basically the opposite of the Helen of Troy—she isn’t the face that launched a thousand ships, sending millions to war, but instead is the face that stopped a war. Fascinating, that; it’s like the difference between a film noir and a feminist text.

Finally, as one would expect, Chi-Raq offers plenty of examples of Spike being Spike. He’s continuing his fascination with casting actors from The Wire and even making callbacks to that show (he’s especially fond of having Isiah Whitlock, Jr., aka Clay Davis from The Wire, say “sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit”), he’s breaking the fourth wall, he’s clubbing you over the head with his themes. He’s at his best when he’s making films that are socially relevant and tied to the real world, which Chi-Raq most definitely is. | Pete Timmermann

 

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