Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ Is Messy, Uneven, and Absolutely Vital

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Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq opens with an assault of imagery and information, conveyed in graphics, song, voiceover, and on-screen text: a red, white, and blue map of the United States rendered in guns, a scene-setting hip-hop track illustrated by onscreen lyrics (“Please pray for my city/ Too much hate in my city”), statistics comparing deaths on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq with those in the streets of Chicago in the same period, sound bites from news anchors, a voiceover from real-life Chicago priest and activist Michael Pfleger, and most appropriately, giant, bold red text (with a siren soundtrack) reading “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY.” This entire opening boils down to those four words, and they capture the quality that makes this Lee’s best film in years: urgency. There are huge swaths of Chi-Raq that don’t work at all, and they ultimately don’t matter a lick, because the picture charges ahead with such confidence and electricity.

It comes not a moment too soon for the filmmaker. It’s been nearly a decade since his last critical and commercial success, the Denzel Washington-fronted thriller Inside Man, and while he’s turned out some of the finest documentaries and performance films of his (or, frankly, any) career in that time, they’ve been interspersed with a frankly puzzling series of narrative missteps, from the clumsy Miracle at St. Anna to the unwieldy Red Hook Summer to the woefully ill-advised remakes Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Most of those films had at least a few scenes that played and a performance or two of note, but were primarily striking for how clearly they betrayed a filmmaker adrift, thrashing about for relevance or vitality, for a connection with an audience that seemed to have drifted away.

I don’t know if he’ll get them back with Chi-Raq, but he deserves to. Even when it misfires (and that’s not an infrequent occurrence) there’s no denying this picture’s power, brashness, and ambition. It’s alive in a way Lee’s narrative films haven’t been since 25th Hour — another film haunted by tragedy and buoyed by experimentation. The premise, scripted by Lee and fellow filmmaker Kevin Willmott (Lee “presented” his ingenious mock-documentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), is as bold as the presentation: Aristophanes’ classic Lysistrata, transplanted into the battleground streets of Chicago’s South Side. True to the inspiration, much of the dialogue is written and performed as rhyming couplets, which is both silly and inspired, often at the same time.

And our guide through the story is Dolemedes, played by a resplendently suited Samuel L. Jackson as a cross between a Greek chorus and Rudy Ray Moore. Jackson is essentially reprising his role from Do the Right Thing (complete with a refrain of “Wake up!”); also returning to the Lee rep company is Wesley Snipes, as “Cyclops,” leader of one of the story’s warring street gangs. The other is the title character (Nick Cannon), a rapper/gangster whose girl Lysistrata (the marvelous Teyonah Parris, from Mad Men and Dear White People) devises a novel idea for putting an end to the bloodshed they’re perpetrating: a sex strike, with no action in the sheets until there’s peace in the streets.

Lee and Willmott’s script plays this notion as comedy, obviously, and often broadly so; the pledge itself and the chants it inspires snap with lowdown wit, the desperation of the male characters as the strike lurches on provides endless comic momentum, and Dave Chappelle gets a great, one-scene turn as a stymied strip-club owner (it’s a show-stopping hit-and-run reminiscent of Pryor’s turns in Car Wash or Uptown Saturday Night). That said, some of the comic beats miss, and wildly; a scene aping Dr. Strangelove, with Lysistrata seducing a sentient Tea Party protest sign named “General King Kong” (David Patrick Kelly), has a cringe-to-laughs ratio of ten to one.

Yet it’s surprising that the picture is as funny as it is, considering not only the serious subject at its heart, but how many heavy dramatic scenes slam up against light comic ones. Lee commands these wild tonal shifts with ease, and it’s sort of remarkable that Chi-Raq can go from scenes of farce to dance numbers (this is the closest thing he’s done to a big-screen musical since School Daze) to moments of mourning and agony without giving viewers whiplash.

Sure, there are some stumbles. A few scenes, particularly early on, fall into the pattern that sank Red Hook Summer: long conversations of soapboxing dialogue, pushily underscored by an overwhelmingly sad piano score, which are less drama than speechmaking. In those scenes, and scattered others, it seems odd that a filmmaker as visually arresting as Lee insists on telling rather than showing. And there’s still something unsettling about his recent, strange fascination with long church scenes, which seem to lean more into proselytizing than storytelling, oddly echoing the work of Lee’s nemesis Tyler Perry.

But here, the house of God holds one of the picture’s most arresting scenes, a long eulogy by Pfleger-inspired Father Corridan (John Cusack, outstanding) that becomes a riveting state of the union address, touching on the “underground economy” of crime, the tyranny of the NRA, income inequality, mass incarceration, and the failures of the educational system. It’s both a great monologue (Cusack delivers it with passion and gusto) and a great manifesto — a reminder that it’s downright shocking to see a contemporary film that so directly addresses contemporary matters.

Such concerns aren’t confined to that speech; Lee and Willmott’s up-to-the-minute script is peppered with references to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the massacres at Newtown and Charleston. Well, it’s not quite up to the minute — we’ve had a couple more mass shootings in just the two days since our media screening, and another 16-year-old shot to death on the South Side. Chi-Raq is a film with something to say about those tragedies, and much more besides. In a season where even the Important Films tackle hot-button issues carefully and tastefully, here comes Spike Lee, tossing cinematic Molotov cocktails. It’s good to have him back. We need him now more than ever.

Chi-Raq is out Friday in limited release.