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Music Drama Film Review: "Chi-Raq" (Written/Directed by Spike Lee, Starring Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, et. al)
Lysistrata: "[The] salvation of all Greece lies in the women's hands. Calonice: "In the women's hands? A precarious place to be!" Lysistrata: "Yes, our country's future depends on us: whether the Peloponnesians become extinct— Excerpts from "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes, 411 B.C.
The above truly encompasses writer-director Spike Lee's bombastically resonant update to Aristophanes’ source work. In a film that is by turns a singularly ambitious dissection of race, class and social status combined with pointedly clear observations on the millennia long battle of the sexes, "Chi-Raq" emerges with razor-sharp insights and a fully-loaded gun cocked. It is one of those rare, take-no-prisoners and shoot-first type films that scarcely get made anymore. Regardless of your opinion of Lee as a cultural commentator when he speaks in interviews, universities, or at press conferences, his filmmaking still has the rushing tenacity of a brash prizefighter vying for the title shot. With his latest, he doesn't quite TKO his opponents with a single punch, but he leaves their bodies flailing and dragged out, exhausted, and thinking, all the same.
It’s fairly obvious that Lee's voice has been going through a series of late-period transitions, some of them not at all smooth, in the last decade. Following what amounted to his last really novel film, "25th Hour", he flirted with blockbuster territory with 2006's "Inside Man", an all-star crime-caper mash-up featuring the likes of veteran Spike Lee Joint player Denzel Washington along with Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Max Von Sydow. Inspired but ultimately derivative of "The Taking of Pelham 123", "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The French Connection", it did successfully demonstrate what Lee could do with an upscale budget even if it didn't display his conventional mark and wisdom of his earliest features. At this point, even his longtime admirers and earnest critical supporters had feared that he became out of touch with social issues and that his directing bordered on student filmmaker-level. This film seemed to be a spit-in-the- eye-of-my-detractors move to at least prove that Lee's technical skill hadn't dampened. However, his features that followed ran counterpoint to the reinvigorated image he was about to cultivate even if his heart was in the right place.
Three films in particular proved disheartening to his core audience and critical impact. One of these, “Red Hook Summer” is definitely do for a reappraisal in the years to come. 2008's wartime drama "Miracle at St. Anna", again featuring a mostly all-blackcast of relative unknowns, was incredibly faulty from a factual perspective that ultimately made it difficult to redeem on the whole. Telling the core story of four African-American soldiers from the segregated 92nd Division during WWII in Italy at the culmination of the war's final year, Lee adapted it from James McBride's eponymous novel that emphasized the Italian-African relationship and the ties that bound. The text itself and the imagery of the film were intensely religious and the focal point of both was a reaction to the atrocities of war and racial strife from within the ranks and not a glorification of the misdeeds committed by many officers. McBride's material itself was challenged by scholars numerous times and clearly that presented an uneasy adaptation for Lee to tackle. "Red Hook Summer", the sixth chronological film in Lee's "Chronicles of Brooklyn" series that also includes "Crooklyn", "Clockers" and "He Got Game", marked, on the surface, a real return to his roots. Shot digitally for one of a handful of times, it truly felt like the independent film Lee was yearning to make years prior but never got around to it. The film moves freely in an off-the-cuff and somewhat tangential but still opinionated way. Traversing a multitude of themes, the principal aim was to carve out a grey area where the stark contrasts of black and white decision making don't exist. In Lee's world, "Red Hook Summer" profited in terms of vision and plot but, stunningly, was a meteoric box office disappointment with a paltry take of just over $330,000. By no means a narrative failure, it saw the always uncaged auteur finally embracing twenty first century trends and use of technology – tablet computers and social media, for instance – while sticking the landing when it came to tried and true Leeisms and bitingly potent social commentary. If this was one of his experiments, it was a leap of faith that veteran Lee watchers saw as indicative of his still burning zeal to transmit human scale stories. The last, his 2013 American remake of the much lauded international psychological thriller “Oldboy” was jarring and cinematically brutal butcame off as mere busywork for the director that lacked the wellspring of inspiration of his formative features.
“Chi-Raq” is a demanding and frequently rewarding film. Cinematically, its keen and unique for its rhyme-based dialogue (faithful to its source) and also thankfully serves as territory Lee hasn’t traversed before genre wise – the musical. Very much akin to the Kenny Leon (August Wilson’s “Fences”, Denzel Washington, 2010) directed and world renowned poet Saul Williams-headlined Tupaq-inspired musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me” that enjoyed an all too limited but transfixing and much talked about run. It couldn’t be more urgent or literal in its crusade. Despite these many merits, though, there is one glaring misnomer that is inescapable. Lee and his co-writer, University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott seems to only be offering one perspective to the violent strife rippling across Chicago – the men. Sure, we see the women of the city depicted as the valiant activists – using little more than their sex appeal and their men’s doting reliance on it to bring about an end to an ages long embittered feud. Despite this, save for a few times, do we see our heroines’ strength come from their sensitivity and vulnerability in order to propagate peace. This presentational through line seems to be antithetical to the entire premise of the film and the larger social context that Lee painstakingly aims to transmit. Also, does it matter that the Spartans and the Trojans are, by Lee’s understanding, quarreling over nothing? It makes even the demonizing of the men appear like a gross misappropriation for both parties. As effective as many of the scenes are – John Cusack’s liberal white reverend gives a professorial but incredibly animated sermon as he infuses statistics and personal stories with an unrelenting perception. Jennifer Hudson’s mostly underwritten young mother character finds herself tossed into the national spotlight due to her infant’s death by stray bullet. And yet, in the overarching scheme of things, their pronouncements don’t resound as acutely and pointedly as they should. The man behind 40 Acres And A Mule still knows his targets, but in many respects, they are no longer stationary skeet but moving and roving ones that could benefit from more introspective revelations that reach more than one conclusion in order to reach the heights of poignancy that the filmmaker so clearly aspires to.