Most race-based films propose a bonfire, a false prophet of equality sanctioned under a nominally no-sided geometric shape nonetheless replete with sinister jagged edges. Chi-Raq, a riposte to such staid, socially-sanctioned respectability, is no bonfire; it’s a molotov-cocktail with an eye for all the rough edges it can find. With a script pitched at the level of a Public Enemy breakdown and filmmaking as shambolic as a rattlesnake in a rave, Chi-Raq is a cinematic DJ of equal parts braggadocio and bleakness. That it is Lee’s most invigorating film in at least a decade alone makes it essential cinema; that it is great cinema as well is merely a nice bonus.
The current decade has welcomed, for the first time in history, a cadre of films about American race relations entrusted in the hands of filmmakers of African descent. This is a fundamentally noble and essential gesture, and while the results vary from marvelous and incendiary (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave) to good-great (Ava Duvernay’s Selma and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Creed) to milquetoast (Lee Daniels’ The Butler),even the best of the films are ingrained with a quintessentially Western cinematic aesthetic of individualist narrative and character over form and other cinematic aesthetics (being that the filmmakers are Western, and not only black, practitioners after all).
The one exception has always been Spike Lee, whose best films stir rabble-rousing American bombshells with the aesthetic sensualist spirit of many African filmmakers, from Sembène to Sissako, who trade in color, movement, and poetry as well as traditional, international notions of character and narrative. Even in his earliest days, Lee’s Do the Right Thing transformed slice-of-life portrait of New York City poverty into a sprawling tapestry of chaos and order, malaise and menace, and above all feral sound and stirring color. The closest American compatriot was neither fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese nor Woody Allen, the two filmmakers he is most often compared to. Instead, it was Midwesterner Robert Altman, whose films tickled dialects and suggested the subfuscous layer of fiction in everyday life not only through their diegetic narratives but via their challenging, contradictory application of the sensory experiences we associate with art.
How fitting that Lee’s Chi-Raq, a work that tethers Lee’s African and Altmanesque influences, takes place in the African Mid-West of Chicago, a city that Lee characterizes as not only inter-race battlefield but intra-race war and intercommunal art project, as well as metatextual amalgam of film, music, sport, sex, violence, virtue, vice, pleasure, pain, and toil and trouble. Presided over by the sooth saying Dolomedes (Samuel Jackson) who stops the film’s chaos cold to lay down rhymes both ribald and righteous, Lee’s film unearths neural fruit in aural rap-rhymed dialogue, ocular color coding and contrast, and perspiring sweat and sensuality that accrues an almost tactile immediacy. Above all, Chi-Raq is Lee’s most vivaciously visual film, and his most immediate cinematic, in at least a decade.
Lee’s film rejects linear narrative for a transcendental, tangential assemblage of voices and shapes both elephantine and bijou, booming and hushed, all vying less for control of a city than simply to survive another day. The voice that is heard loudest, although she must work for it as a victim of both gender and race based discrimination, is the ferocious Lyistrata (Teyonah Parris) who converts the currency of coitus into a fund for revolt when she leads a sex strike against her male counterparts, demanding that they turn to peace if they wish to procreate. This irates both her boyfriend, rapper Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) and his arch-enemy, and head of a rival gang, Sean “Cyclops” Andrews (Wesley Snipes).
Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, and Dave Chappelle also don Lee’s existential, presentational garb, trading rhyming dialogue that draws connections between hip-hop diatribes and classical Greek drama (the film is a loose, limber adaptation of Aristophenes’ Lyistrata). Implicitly, the film interrogates why the latter, and its Greek drama compatriots, are canonical texts in white society but the former, rap songs, are shrewdly shunned as emblems of a shriveled society. John Cusack, as the film’s lone major white role, is an inner-city preacher crunching his own numbers, and preaching his own rap, against the cultural imperialism presiding over the black bodies he himself leads in harmony (an irony Lee is aware of, and plays with).
All the while, Lee’s roving camera morally, but not moralistically, burrows into the streets, turning color (literally) into a visual lexicon on screen in a film all about how color controls our lives. He films with the dexterity of a music video, the off-beat, strident cadence of a stand-up act, the bull-by-the-horns rage of a stampede, and, most importantly, the sensuous interplay of a live-stage sex show matched to a performance art piece. Disarmament, Lee supposes, includes weaponizing the art forms of the street, as well as the art forms of the libido, and laying down your arms necessitates laying off more masculine conceptions of revolution.
Throughout, Lee is always tangling, not only narratively in emerging as as one of the few modern filmmakers to seriously consider the denial of women in public and private spaces of power. But he also tangles visually and thematically in playing with the disparity, or lack-thereof, between pensive, provocative street art and pompous wallpaper advertisement thawing out over the streets of Chiraq; simply peering into the periphery of Lee’s vision of the city evokes a brooding war between primary-colored street art, painted by black bodies, and corporate advertisements trading in sexualized depictions of those same people. Lee’s film doesn’t engage in respectability politics, but he also worries whether the same African-Americans who ennoble the streets with their chalk art have been tricked into participating in the very sexualization that ties them down.
Even more recklessly, Lee stirs up a raucous display of dialogue-driven histrionics, intermingling high-art with low-camp, employing phrases like “blue balls” for their aesthetic implications as well as their privileged ones and provocatively wielding images of war, destitution, poverty, and even phalluses with as much of a parodic smirk as a plaintive sigh. Arguably no other living filmmaker (certainly no American one) could pull off the bait-and-switch tonal shift of the finale, an archly-sentimental monologue by Nick Cannon (a climax to an unspeakably bold performance from a heretofore untapped talent ) two-fisted with a whimsical repertory theater allusion and pickaxe to Patton’s most famous scene. The sheer dogged willingness of Chi-Raq to intermingle the serious and the comic, to play both the prophet and the provocateur, is never less than bodacious, compulsively watchable cinema.
All told, it’s a concussive piece of filmmaking, not so much a neat white-bread slice-of-life as a spicy spaghetti monster contorted in its own gonzo, off-its-rocker innards. As disheveled as Lee at his best (and worst), it succeeds because it is as mercurial as the everyday lives it plays paean to. Most political films offer social tracts buttoned-up in their Sunday finest, favoring not only respectability politics but respectability cinema. Lee, a muckraker to the core, marinates his radical politics in revolutionary cinema. Chi-Raq isn’t just a Spike Lee joint. It’s doused in kerosene.