From School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X onwards, fans of Spike Lee have come to expect a certain well-articulated intelligence and socio-political engagement to the Atlanta-born director’s bold and unflinching brand of cinema. The last decade or so has seen a number of near misses, but with Chi-Raq, Lee once again lands resounding punches left, right and centre, deftly swinging a wrecking ball at the societal ills of contemporary America to devastating effect. Somewhat remarkable, then, that he takes a Greek play first performed in 400 BC as his framework for a biting meditation on gang violence.
Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes, features a pioneering young woman of the same name who charges her contemporaries to withstand any and all sexual advances from their husbands in order that they may force the end of a conflict through peaceful negotiation. Mankind has changed little in two millennia and there is definitely no doubt as to who wears the trousers in Chi-Raq, the neighbourhood’s ladies, young and old, emphatically vowing “No Peace. No Pussy.” Lysistrata is here embodied with fierce energy and determination by a tremendous Teyonah Parris whose dynamism propels the film with unceasing momentum and whose mesmerising sexuality has her partner, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), in desirous raptures from the off. The young gang leader gives his nickname to the film and his plight echoes that of the city with whom he shares an unwanted, undesirable pseudonym
It refers to how many more men, women and children have been murdered in Chicago than have died serving in US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The female form – of all beautiful shapes and sizes – is not objectified here but instead employed as a tool for control which leads to an interesting inversion of gender politics and power amid the previously macho-dominated, now male-frustrated, and violent environment. There’s a feeling of West Side Story to some degree; however, rival gangs – Trojans and Spartans – do not fight over star-crossed love per Jets and Sharks, but rather a ludicrous, ill-sighted sense of pride, honour and street-cred. As local priest Father Corrigan, John Cusack gives a supporting performance of some heft and in a lambasting, impassioned speech of liberal values decries the futility of the “self-inflicted genocide”.
The blood red lyrics of Cannon’s own song Pray 4 My City make for a punchy, confrontational opening that hits home with an almost documentary-realist edge and This Is An Emergency reinforces with capitalised grandeur the seriousness of what we witness. As was the case for the disc-spinning, sooth-saying voice of reason in Lee’s 1989 Brooklyn melting-pot masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, Samuel L. Jackson again fills prophetic, truth-telling shoes as the narrator of our tale, Dolmedes. Garishly suited, booted and gesturing with thinly concealed glee with a plethora of different canes, he revels in observation and scything through bullshit to the crux of many matters with an elliptical poetry of rhyme and wordplay that gives Chi-Raq an almost Shakespearean pentameter. Angela Bassett, a force of nature as bereaved mother and community figurehead, Miss Helen, also fights her battles with words, vocal prowess and intelligence.
Lee’s script – co-written with Kevin Willmott – is astounding in its density, yet subtlety of double meaning. Given the source play, there is a humour to all that occurs that teeters throughout on the edge of violent calamity, occasionally falling catastrophically off into the abyss. For every moment of farcical hilarity there is the brutal counterpoint of a mother washing her child’s blood from a sidewalk. Laughs leave a bitter taste and tears stain the ground but one thing is clear: “The only real security is love, y’all” As for their former collaboration, Lee’s latest rambling, bamboozling, hard-hitting tale of urban strife comes to an end with Jackson having the last unifying word. Chi-Raq is not to be missed. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens