Having released in the US ten months before its festival premiere in the UK, and around a year before its actual British cinematic release, one has to wonder, given its rapturous critical reception, what took Chi-Raq so long to reach our shores. After seeing this (really excellent) hybrid of Greek theatre, gangster drama, and broad comedy, it’s easy to piece the answer together – finding a target audience for Spike Lee’s latest Joint is not easy, especially outside of the US. Those interested in seeing an Aristophanes play adapted for the screen may well balk at the modern gangland Chicago setting, and anyone longing for a gritty crime drama is going to be left wanting, thanks to broad humour and plenty of rhyming verse. However, Chi-Raq’s unclassifiable genre should not put anyone off seeing it, as it’s a vital and exciting mash-up of styles that fiercely delivers a very urgent social message.
An adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, Chi-Raq sets its sights squarely on the aggressive masculinity that has lead Chicago to have such a terrifyingly high murder rate and how femininity may be the only effective counter to such toxicity. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is the girlfriend of local rapper Chiraq (Nick Cannon), who also happens to lead the Spartan gang, engaged in an endless and pointless blood feud with the Trojans, fronted by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). During a shootout between the two gangs, a stray bullet hits Patti, the seven year old daughter of local community figure Irene (Jennifer Hudson). With this senseless tragedy as the last straw, Lysistrata, inspired by her older roommate Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), proclaims a city-wide sex strike for all women to take part in until their men cave to their demands for peace.
As you might have guessed from the volume of Greek myth references in the above paragraph, Chi-Raq is a highly literate film. On top of those already mentioned, we get a high council of Greek figures including Apollo and Oedipus (hilariously, this gathering of community elders are by far the stupidest people in the film), a shout out to The Warriors, itself a gang film inspired by Greek writings, and plenty more. Of course, it wouldn’t be a classical play without a chorus, and Samuel L Jackson delivers in spades here as Dolmedes, annihilating the fourth wall all the while speaking in rhyming verse.
Though less of their dialogue is rhyming than Jackson’s (about 60% as opposed to 100%), the rest of the cast prove more than capable of making this cinematically unique conceit work. Parris is hugely charismatic in her biggest role to date, and Cannon is unexpectedly great playing a comic anti-hero. Of course, Jackson is fantastic, and the supporting cast, including John Cusack in one of his best recent performances and a hilarious Dave Chappelle cameo, make for sterling backup. There are a couple of missteps – most notably Isiah Whitlock Jr as Bacchus, doing a far too obvious pastiche of his Wire character – but they are few and far between.
Though the story and verse couldn’t possibly be more traditional, Lee’s direction and writing is hypermodern in every other aspect. Chi-Raq bounces around like a comic book, colourful and in near-permanent motion. Incredibly broad humour mixes with faux-documentary footage and some rousing musical numbers. Not everything works all the time, but Lee moves so fast that it’s near-impossible to get hung up on any of the flaws. Shooting often in extreme close-ups, or at least with a very shallow focus, DOP Matthew Libatique brings the action right to us, creating positively iconic sequences.
It’s an inspired way to bring an ancient play into the modern era, and though Lee may stick to Aristophanes’ rhyme scheme, he certainly doesn’t pay fealty to classically-styled dialogue. Despite the obviously heightened tone, conversations between the Chicago residents feel authentic, whether tragic or funny. Once the scale of the sex-strike ‘crisis’ broadens and the National Guard becomes involved, much of this reality is sacrificed for the sake of humour. Luckily, the jokes here, both subtle and broad, have a really high hit-rate, particularly a running gag regarding ‘Operation Hot and Bothered’, a special ops mission aimed at persuading Lysistrata’s army to put an end to their celibacy.
Hidden beneath all of this outrageous silliness, however, is a very real fury. The film takes its title from the less-than-affectionate nickname given to Chicago by its South Side residents thanks to the amount of guns on the streets and the complete lack of effort by the authorities to quell the violence. Cycles of brutality go on and on, and Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott’s script lays out the root causes in very plain terms. There’s no subtlety or allegory here, nor should there be. These are issues that most audiences would love to ignore, and their stark portrayal here is a revolutionary necessity. Police brutality, systemic racism, and black on black crime perpetuated by hopelessness all make their appearances in the main body of the film and the chorus segments, addressing the audience directly.
These powerful messages are first delivered as soon as the film begins, with an overture of ‘Pray 4 My City’, a song written specifically for the film and performed by Nick Cannon. It’s full of incredibly evocative refrains, and pops up a few more times as the story goes on, the keystone of an amazing soundtrack and score – one of the many elements that makes Chi-Raq such a unique and vital film. It’s educative message moviemaking with a totally individual style that never forgets to be raucously entertaining.