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‘Chi-Raq’ crafts a manifesto both brilliant and messy

By Nate Taskin

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ChiRaq The Movies Official Facebook Page)

(‘Chi-Raq The Movie’ Official Facebook Page)

“Chi-Raq” is enraged, hilarious, blunt, colorful, cool, unapologetic, playful, serious, and, in its own weird way, blisteringly inspirational. Only Spike Lee could have made a movie like this one, and here, he’s at his Spikiest. “Chi-Raq” acts as both an incendiary call-to-arms and an impassioned plea for peace. It’s a two-hour howl of pain and hope, and one of the best of the last year, even when it fails to nail all of its targets head-on.

The film is based on the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata” (from which the main character takes her name), in which, in the midst of the bloody Peloponnesian War, a group of women agreed to withhold sex from their men until they stopped the violence. Spike Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott have taken this concept and transposed it onto modern Chicago.

When a movie confronts a topic like black-on-black gun violence, it often feels obligated to transform itself into a watered-down, Oscar-bait melodrama rife with tedious respectability politics and purge itself of any actual bite or personality. Thankfully, this is Spike Lee we are talking about. As one of the most audacious filmmakers to ever live on this planet, he seems to  endlessly fire off new ideas.

Wildly different tones are mashed up and smoothed out into one organic movement. Within single scenes, “Chi-Raq” swings from absurd irreverence to profoundly poignant. Samuel L. Jackson can deliver ace soliloquies in front of giant American flags about how Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) could warm the hearts of even George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, and John Cusack can exhale a fiery sermon during the funeral of an innocent girl caught in gang violence to explain how systemic incarceration is the new Jim Crow.

The Spartans and the Trojans, the two gangs whose rivalry centers the conflict, adorn their flags with purple and orange, respectively. The gorgeous visual palette of “Chi-Raq” mimics their paraphernalia. These colors glow and burst throughout the movie; the characters and scenery are caked in vivid hues.

Every tiny movement onscreen, from a finger snap to an army on the march, has a level of precisely calculated choreography. Actors always seem to position themselves so that they face the audience directly, and lengthy monologues are delivered right into the camera.

When Spike Lee throws his shots, he opts for force instead of precision, and for that reason the ball sometimes only skirts the rim of the net. While the conceit of dialogue relayed almost entirely in verse seems ludicrous at first, I fell into the movie’s lyrical groove in short order. Unfortunately, Lee doesn’t stick to the concept for the film’s entirety, and some portions of conversation are told without a couplet rhyme in sight. Given the tendency for characters to launch into lengthy screeds that feature the standard liberal talking points (John Cusack literally preaches to the choir in one scene), these segments could have benefitted from a more rhythmic touch.

There’s also the problem in the way “Chi-Raq” addresses sexual assault by … well, not really mentioning it at all. Given that the film’s premise predicates itself on the idea of women saying “no” to their partners, what happens when those men – many of whom are violent murderers – don’t honor their girlfriends’ wishes? It is a valuable question that the movie ignores. Moreover, besides a few gags here and there, the queer perspective isn’t really explored either. “Chi-Raq” envisions a rather heteronormative revolution. For all his commendable contributions to black cinema, Lee falters in the fact that he’s never really been the most intersectional activist.

Nevertheless, an exciting rage swells at the heart of “Chi-Raq,” one that recalls the same palpable energy that defined Lee’s third film, “Do the Right Thing,” one of the greatest movies ever made. “Chi-Raq” moved me to tears and compelled me to take action. Those that want a treatise about how black people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and cease their complaints will be in for a sore disappointment.

Yes, some of Lee’s anger is directed inward, but he also lays bare how the white supremacist system pits people of color against each other so the status quo remains unchallenged. He excoriates the collective American identity that takes its cues from black culture yet demonizes it all the while. He elucidates how the militarization of the police force makes them just as much of a terrorist group as any ragtag collection of Crips or Bloods. “Chi-Raq,” a cinematic firecracker of revolutionary zeal, contains messages that would make both Confederate flag-wearers and #AllLivesMatter chuckleheads quiver in fear.

In true Spike Lee fashion, “Chi-Raq” has angered a lot of people. Native Chicagoans, Mayor Rahm Emanuel included, have objected to the fact that their city is portrayed as a crime-ridden warzone. Others will cry foul at the way Lee uses fantastical elements to highlight real tragedy. These charges of inaccuracy and exaggeration fail to engage the movie on its own merits.

The film opens with a chant of “This is an emergency!” In a time of crisis, when the number of mass shootings exceeds the number of days in the past year, when a walking cesspit of a human can shoot up a black church and the police still treat him to a Burger King meal, when cops can face no consequences after they murder an innocent kid with a toy gun, Spike Lee proves he has no time to worry if he steps on a few toes.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected].

About the Writer
Nate Taskin, Assistant Arts Editor

Nate Taskin was the head of the film/television department of the arts section for the 2017-18 academic year. They graduated as BDIC major with a concentration...

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