After a long delay, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq has finally come to UK cinemas. It’s a strange film, a hip-hopera that’s undoubtedly uneven – but it’s also a glorious return to form for Lee, his best since his 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke.
The premise is taken from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy written in 411 BC about a group of women who deny sexual favours to their male counterparts in order to end the Peloponnesian War. Lee and his screenwriter Kevin Willmott update the setting to modern Chicago, which bears the nickname “Chi-Raq” due to its extraordinarily high death rates – the result of gangland gun violence. Greek poetry is converted into spoken rap verse, where some lines rhyme, or at least have the air of theatricality.
Lee throws himself into the project with gusto, bringing his most excessive and vivid sensibilities to the fore. Samuel L Jackson has a ball as the chorus, sporting a natty suit and hat, and introduces us to the world of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, superb), her rapper boyfriend Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and his nemesis Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). After a series of violent encounters end in the death of a child, Lysistrata is supported by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and white preacher Mike Corridan (John Cusack) in organising a sex strike, bearing the slogan “No Peace, No Pussy!” Once the women take over a nearby armoury, the situation becomes inflamed, until it reaches farcical levels of national attention.
Dynamic camerawork and astonishing work with colour, costumes and choreography ensure that Chi-Raq is basically a musical – The Umbrellas of Chicago, if you will – albeit one that frequently breaks off from its absurd, sometimes very funny premise to insist upon the gravity of the situation. As always, Lee flirts with the sublime and ridiculous, often within the same breath. A show-stopping sequence, where both genders dance with longing to The Chi-Lites’ Oh Girl, strikes a beautiful tone, at once joyous and deeply poignant.
Not everything works. Lee has a lugubrious attitude towards pace, which doesn’t always matter; but the broadly satirical rhythms of Chi-Raq really do demand a tighter structure. While anger and sadness are absolutely justified, the repetitive, sledgehammer approach employed here is arguably less effective than the subtle irreconcilability of Do the Right Thing. However, the fantasia has complacency in its targets as much as anything else, and the moments which crackle with passion and contemporary resonance are more than enough to make this a fierce, striking slice of cinema.
Chi-Raq is released in selected cinemas on 2nd December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Chi-Raq here: