Chi-Raq is a movie only Spike Lee could make. It’s one of his trademark State of the Union pictures overstuffed with thematic intentions because he’s squeezing in provocative reactions to every current event since the last time he made a movie this long, loose, sprawling, sharp, and engaged. (The last was 2004’s She Hate Me, a bursting-at-the-seams Bush-era message about soulless capitalists and bad business ideas.) This new movie is hugely ambitious, telling its story in big hit-and-miss swings, rich with allegorical force, ablaze with righteous fury. It opens, after a rap overture, with a map of America, the states filled in with red, white, and blue guns. A siren goes off. A black screen fills with blood red letters repeating the urgent warning booming through the speakers. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY.” Timely and essential, this complicated and uneven film is a frustrated dispatch from deep within a damaged nation. Chi-Raq is a pained lament and a riotous satire, a hip-hop musical and soapbox sermon, alive with activist fervor over gun violence, mass incarceration, poverty, police brutality, Confederate nostalgia, institutional discrimination, and gangs.
The messages are forceful; the filmmaking is vibrant, as alive as Lee has ever been with excitement and passion, synthesizing all sorts of ideas into one mesmerizing jumble. One need only glance at the film’s DNA to realize how wide-ranging and eclectic it is. Taking his title from a slang term for Chicago – its origins the statistic that the last 15 years have seen more murders in Chicago than American casualties in Iraq – Lee, viewing the city though an outsider’s eyes, finds inspiration for his story in the nearly 2,500-year-old Greek comedy Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ account of the title woman’s effort to end the Peloponnesian War with a sex strike. The concept transplanted to 2015 on the South side of the Windy City, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson wearing colorful suits and oozing fourth-wall busting charm, finds a gang leader, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), left without the physical act of love. His girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), fed up with drive-by shootings and stray bullets terrorizing their neighborhoods, decides there’ll be no more sex until the shooting stops. She organizes every woman in town, including the rival gang’s girls and the local sex workers, to deny their men intimacy until peace reigns.
This broad satire grows wacky – the women invade a local armory and refuse to leave, much to the dismay of the local police who don’t what to do with an army of chastity belt-wearing protestors – while the serious underpinnings remain potent. The epidemic of gun violence in America fuels devastating scenes with a mother (Jennifer Hudson) weeping over her slain child, a wise older woman (Angela Bassett) organizing more conventional protests, and a kind priest (John Cusack) who delivers a fiery Chayefsky-esque sermon against gun culture (calling out the NRA for aiding and abetting murder, legislators their co-conspirators). Lee puts the serious and the silly right next to each other. One sequence finds a goofy, cringe-worthy scene of a black woman seducing a racist old official in order to tear the Confederate flag off the wall of his office: an uncomfortable moment turned triumphant, and a perfect example of the flailing that happens when the tone flops around.
But Lee isn’t doing anything small here. Matthew Libatique shoots in popping primary colors and the editors cut it together with a jazzy meandering pace. Lee, with Kevin Willmott (a filmmaker and professor at the University of Kansas), has written it in rhymed verse, a half rap/half Shakespeare vernacular that’s as artificial as it is dense and beautiful. One part Do the Right Thing neighborhood portraiture, two parts scathing Bamboozled social commentary, and three parts theatrical flourishes of cinematic style, Chi-Raq may have bitten off more than it can chew, but there’s always something interesting and entertaining going on. We linger in moments of pain – Bassett confronting a shady insurance salesman, a somber funeral, and earnest monologues about society’s ills – then bounce to moments of light comedy – like Wesley Snipes as a one-eyed gang leader named Cyclops, a group of pathetic men impotently counter-protesting, and Dave Chappelle as a strip club proprietor lamenting his slow business on account of striking strippers. It is confrontational enough to seem like too much, so many real traumas and eccentric laughs bumping into each other, but is sufficiently committed to its wild mishmash to mostly work nonetheless.
Lee is making a picture of the national mood, painting in bold strokes invigorated by a frayed political climate’s roiling disagreements, mentioning recent murdered young black people, killer cops, and mass shooters by name. (Just imagine the annotations a fresh viewer will need a few decades hence.) It’s overflowing with timely discussions and ideas, even when some of the flailing comedy lands flat (mostly because the sexual politics aren’t as sharp) and the plot takes unfruitful detours and tonal loops. The movie’s unafraid to be goofy, like when Chicago’s slimy (fictional) mayor excuses his racism by saying, “my wife’s biracial,” or a dance number breaks out when police try to break the strike with smooth ballads. Later, though, there’s a moving breakdown in a fantastical scene when a gangbanger is confronted with families of those destroyed by crossfire. The comedy and the tragedy are equally heavy-handed, not always landing, but packing a tremendous wallop when they do. It’s the rare angry political film that’s hardly cathartic. It knows America is too stuck in intractable problems to do anything but laugh and cry while we agitate for a better future. The film’s messy, but too vital and urgent to ignore.