Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Chi-Raq": Good as Spike Lee Has Been in a Long Time

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Spike Lee, one of the only Black directors to have managed to build a decades-long career for himself despite a somewhat uneven filmography, is difficult not to appreciate as an auteur.  His films are built upon inconsistencies in tone, yet can sometimes have enough raw emotional energy to push through into greatness, such was the case with Do the Right Thing and School Daze.  However, the more recent entries into his filmography seem unable to recapture that sort of frenetic spirit.  His latest entry, Chi-Raq, is perhaps the closest he’s come in the past decade, making this an enjoyable film if not one of the greats.

Ostensibly a reimagining of the classic Greek play Lysistrata, Chi-Raq takes place in downtown Chicago, a community torn apart by gang warfare and a police force that chooses to fight violence with apathy and more violence.  The original play saw its titular character hatching a plan to withhold sex from the men of Sparta in order to halt their escalation of the Peloponnesian War.  Similarly, Chi-Raq’s Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) sets her aims on halting the violence of her community, which ultimately becomes a movement around the world as women proclaim in unison “No peace.  No pussy.”

Adaptation of Greek theater plays heavily into Spike Lee’s directorial fetishes, as it allows him to stage artificially theatrical setpieces and develop excuses for characters to deliver speeches directly into the camera.  The performances are great across the board, from Lysistrata’s leadership to her gang-banger boyfriend, the titular Chi-Raq, played by a remarkably decent Nick Cannon as a man emotionally invested in a lifestyle that is destructive to his community.  But more than anything, the script, largely written in rhyming couplets to add gravitas to the speechifying delivery, drips with fiery passion against the violence of Black poverty and the authoritative violence that perpetuates it and places innocents and children within the line of fire.  More than anything, this is a film about the need for unity in tearing down systems of oppression and recognizing that violence need not be the means by which ends are achieved.

As noble as that message is, though, there are times when the film’s marriage to the comedic aspects of its source material ineffectually make the artistry come crashing down.  Spike Lee has a much better grasp on racial politics than he does on sex and sexuality, and he has even less of a grasp on broad sexual comedy.  The recurring joke of the film is that the men of the world are going crazy from a lack of sexual intercourse, making them desperate to end Lysistrata’s sexual strike by any means necessary.  While thankfully the film never goes into dark, sexually assaultive territory (as realism isn’t really the point here), the setpieces meant to exhibit male sexual frustration are awkward and really just not all that funny.  There’s too much reliance set on the supposed inherent comedy of the situation and no effort put into actually telling jokes with the premise.  This makes the film feel about a half hour too long with redundancies and dragging moments that feel divorced from the hopeful message the film wishes to impart.

That said, Chi-Raq is not an entirely bad film, and the good parts are good enough to justify a viewing.  Spike Lee may not be able to capture the lightning in the bottle he did with his early career, but Chi-Raq is the closest he’s come in a long time.  Some tighter screenwriting and a greater focus on what he’s good at would serve him better in the future, but if he must continue to experiment, this one was at least a worthwhile venture.

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