By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
Spike Lee has created one the most ferociously original movies of the year with Chi-Raq. Lee utilizes the Greek comedic play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, first performed in 411 B.C., as inspiration for a full-bodied, robust, lively and ground-breaking cinematic opus. In its blisteringly unique and endlessly watchable one hundred and twenty-seven minutes, Lee’s latest informs, teaches (a haunting early bit fills our sights with terrifying statistics concerning gun violence), preaches and fills us with alternating bouts of love, heartache, drama, tragedy and sorrow.
True to many of Lee’s prior efforts, the composition is largely a musical. This is complimented by much of the dialogue being formulated in couplets (as was true with Aristophanes’ play which this is based upon). Such gives the already highly emotive proceedings a heightened sense of poetry. Yet, this exertion is also filled with genuinely effective humor, tragedy, smart writing from Kevin Willmott and an unbridled confidence in risk-taking from director and co-scripter Lee. This is the type of film you watch in sheer admiration, with mouth unhinged throughout, at the sheer genius, range, allegory and victoriously executed and novel ideas which fills every frame of the runtime.
The movie concerns itself with topics that are both timeless and pulled from front page news. Heightening the immediacy of what Lee is stating this often occurs simultaneously within the same second, passage or context. Lee addresses, in his trademark and always admirable no-holds barred manner, America’s increasing gun obsession, sex, death, politics and war. This approach makes the material all the more commanding and authoritative. Still, it takes time to intimately know every one of its characters. It never betrays the operatic stage-play roots of the source material. This transpires as various members peer into the camera, as if addressing their captive audience, and speak of their life, experience or personal beliefs. Sometimes they simply announce their own notions on what is transpiring in the plot at that particular second. This adds to the bravura style, singularity and genuine respect towards the perspective of Lee’s varied cast.
This is most evident in a large plot-point taken from Lysistrata. Here women withhold intimacy from the men in their lives in an endeavor to negotiate peace. The work radiantly uses this as a chance to discuss the differing viewpoints of males and females. Not only does this give us a chance to dig deeper into the minds, hearts and souls of those we follow on this harrowing journey, but it also uses the story as a pulpit for a plethora of themes many motion pictures are too timid to touch on. This is especially in the brazen fashion Lee does here. Elements such as these are employed in such a way that they also build upon and enhance other aspects of the narrative. It all comes together to make the endeavor as a whole all the more substantial and strong. Furthermore, this all helps make the effort consistently relatable, fresh and striking. It is guaranteed to bring about lively discussion afterward.
This is the definition of a well-rounded movie-going experience.
Lee tells the tale of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris in a herculean and always gripping portrayal). She arranges a demonstration against the brutality in the streets of south-side Chicago after a young, innocent child is killed by a bullet. This eventually turns the men against the women. This, in turn, creates further divides among residents and political officials in the area. These components gradually become global. As Lysistrata fights for peace against the war zone she resides in, such is where the title comes into play, the world debates, follows or denies Lysistrata’s actions. It gives the proceedings even more of a news broadcast flare. This is illuminated by repeated instances. Here we watch reports of our characters’ actions and ideologies causing the world to ‘wake up’, as Lee informs us to do before the end credits here just as he did in his 1989 magnum opus Do the Right Thing, and let their own voices be collectively heard.
As can be easily recognized the chronicle is compelling, highly dramatically charged material. If this was done even in a straight-forward manner it would be immediate and masterful in its own right. Yet, among this Lee furthers the breadth and ambitious scope of the feature and adds lavish musical numbers aplenty. These owe as much to the adapted story’s stage roots as big-budget Hollywood productions of such an ilk from the 1940’s and 50’s. Every last one of these successions, whether portrayed for tears or for laughs (as is the case with one highly amusing satirical piece involving a Civil-War canon called “Whistling Dick”), are riveting and triumphantly done in their own right. One late scene where rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon in a beautifully done and convincing performance) and Lysistrata take their battle of the sexes onto a brass bed is especially memorable. It is also appropriately reserved for near the finale. This is because it seems to cumulate all the symbolism, uses addressed beforehand into one breathless experience. There is a gritty, poetic, watchable energy beneath this late sequence all that in many ways a mirror to an early part, a tuneful number in its own right, where Chi-Raq raps at a club. During this time, text message-like blurbs announcing his lyrics and comments from his spectators surround him. This is an imaginative image, one of many that are guaranteed to stay engraved in your psyche long after the feature has concluded, that is as aesthetically pleasing and artistic as it is entertaining. Both incidents are fascinating for both ear and eye. The same can be said for the film itself.
All the technical components are just as successful in transmitting Lee’s distinct vision to the screen. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is crisp, striking and gorgeous. Ryan Denmark and Hye Mee Na’s editing and Cynthia Anne Slagter and Kl Kenzie’s set decoration are just as remarkable. The special and visual effects and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design are also terrific. This is punctuated by a score from Terrence Blanchard that captures all of the strength in the emotions of the account. These high-quality factors contribute to the extra value of the piece tremendously.
Samuel L. Jackson, as Dolmedes, and John Cusack, as Father Mike Corridan, deliver fiery, charismatic performances. When we first meet Cusack’s character giving a speech to a congregation the sheer passion he radiates in his anti-gun violence message and in Cusack’s enactment evokes one of the best, fully-feeling moments in a movie wall to wall with one great section after another. Angela Bassett, as Miss Helen, Jennifer Hudson, as Irene, and Dave Chapelle, as Morris, are all phenomenal in roles which demonstrate stupendous range. Wesley Snipes, as Cyclops, and David Patrick Kelley, as General King Kong, all make their respective personages singular and full of life with equally memorable cast contributions.
Lee has crafted one of his best undertakings to date here. He continues to present subject matter that has been a constant in this visionary artist’s compositions since She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Regardless, he continues to find fresh, new ways to communicate his message. These are clear and articulate yet, much unlike any way we have quite seen or heard them given to us before. He also goes in invigorating new avenues. It makes the joyous sum of this endeavor all the more liberating to be swept up in. This is cinema as a tool of education and engagement. Lee is a professor and Chi-Raq is a masterclass.
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