I imagined the motivational scenario of which Spike Lee made his new film, “Chi-raq,” since the film is pulsating with energy and frenzy. I imagined Lee sitting at his TV watching the news and, lo and behold, another unfortunate and foolish tragedy has occurred in America. Lee, pounding the arms of his chair with his fists, yells with more ferocity than he ever does when he is courtside at a Knick’s game. He is cussing at the screen, possibly with a volume that the news anchor could hear. Eventually he gets up, looks around in a hectic curiosity, and yells to himself and to anyone in the room, “What in the world is going on here? I need to make a movie! I need to make a movie!” He runs out of his house and makes the movie. “Chi-raq” is Lee’s act of breaking the glass that covers the fire extinguisher in an effort to control a fire that is uncontrollable. He’s angry. He is angry that he even has to make a film like this. But, boy, if you are going to make a film detailing on the war zone that is Chicago (nicknamed Chi-raq because more Americans have died there than in the country of Iraq), do so with gusto, confidence, and, yes, amusement.
Sometimes, the situation, the real situation, reaches a level of absurdity that one cannot begin to comprehend with monotone seriousness. The fact that the black life is thrown into this mobius strip of bad influence, violence, societal abandonment, and social contradiction can be inexplicable at times such that the chaos almost becomes cartoonish. At one end, Lee’s film is a spiritual catharsis, at another end it is a loud dirge to the fallen, and at another end it is a satire of human deficiency. All these rays of light collide in one prism. This is why Spike Lee draws inspirations directly from a diverse amount of sources including Kubrick’s own satire of human absurdity in “Dr. Strangelove,” and even the classical Greek comedy, “Lysistrata” written by Aristophanes. It is why the film is infused with so many colors and musical tones and textures, why the cinematography is at once restrained and defiant but also loose and chaotic. It is also why Lee doesn’t stop at the violent epidemic that rages the city and critiques traditional sexual dynamics of men towards women, of any color. Lee’s film is everywhere and it runs the risk of, well, being everywhere. Yet, Lee’s film plays like an angry rap, where thematic elements are thrown in like a stream of consciousness verse where each colorful word adds to the next in an effort to piece together a broken mural of an American tragedy.
After a little girl was killed by a stray bullet amid a gang fight between Chicago gangs, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of gang leader and upstart rapper, Chi-raq (Nick Cannon), has had enough. With the support of her fellow females, they go on a sexual strike, inciting the tagline, “No peace. No piece,” that would hopefully get the gangs to put down their guns. It is a feminine stand against a defunct masculinity, forged from the fires of anger that these women feel as they wait for the next child, the child they bear, to be shot down. As the gang members sloop in their own sexual depression, other men, who are not involved in the violence, fight back against the women because they have to get that piece back. Some moments involving this particular form of conflict almost detach themselves from the essence of the film, but Lee, despite that, remains grounded even if the transitions between scenes can be cluttered and viscous.
“Chi-raq” is genre-less, and that allows Lee the freedom to go wherever he likes, to express himself on a certain point however he means to. Based on a Greek play, at some points it is a musical, at others a reflexive film, and even small snippets resemble a documentary. Of course, large doses of drama and comedy tonally bind the film together. Lee has not employed excessive freedom like this since his breakout film, “Do the Right Thing,” and there is something to be said about his aesthetic approach which mimics a hip hop freestyle. Attitude sweats out of every line of dialogue, dialogue that rhymes in an almost Shakespearean manner while the players don’t recite their lines, they rap them. Consider the scene in which Lysistrata approaches the women tied to the rival gang in an effort to persuade them to join her strike. Dialogue is fiery, passionate, hilarious, and alarming. At another point of the film, Chi-raq talks with the local priest, Father Corridan (John Cusack, who gives a powerful sermon earlier on), and the there is restrain, darkness, but tension as we see a withdrawn man drug up and hide from the realities around him. With this freestyle approach, Lee not only creates a kaleidoscopic display of black life in America, but he refuses to remain mimetic. This, here, is a crucial facet to consider because it refuses to act like a Facebook post or a Tweet or any sort of superficial meme of ideology and prosecution that goes extinct the second it is posted onto social media. Lee’s film defies the sort of expectations of traditional stories such that is places the audience in a constant state of discomfort. Nevertheless, his ideas make room in your mind and remain there, making you confused, angry, or curious.
Ambition has always guided Lee’s film craft and while a lot of his projects fail because of it, I believe this one succeeds. The performances are both animated, melodramatic, and real. It is hard to pull that off in convincing fashion. Parris leads the way with her banner of not-giving-a-flying-hoot. Nick Cannon’s rapper and gangster mixes fragility with hollowness. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the rambunctious narrator and linguistic DJ, Dolmedes, plays his part in a manner where no other living soul on this planet can play the part. But, with surprising strength and potency, Angela Basset plays her Ms. Helen, an older women who is wise and defiant, as if she held all of her anger in for many years only to let it all burst to diffuse all throughout the inner-city air. There is much entertainment in this film, each frame is filled with so much for the eye to absorb. The editing, in true Lee fashion, crosscuts and overlaps often, elongating the moments where Lee holds are heads still and says, “You need to listen to this. You need to see this.” The film may be disjointed at parts, and the plot can only withstand so much from such free form filmmaking. Moreover, the film might offend some even, but that does not matter. Spike Lee made the film because we as a nation forced him to. We may be angry for his comedy or his lack of focus, but maybe Lee did not want to make this movie. I, for one, had a blast watching this calculated mess of a film filled with unrestrained emotion. Spike Lee is on his game here. He’s mad and he’s proud.