140 Character Movie Review – #140RVW
Spike’s latest joint is his most important & timely ever; high praise indeed considering his previous work. #MostImportantAmericanFilmmaker
Spoiler-free Movie Review of Chi-Raq:
This most recent modern telling of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata does something none of the others have; put it in verse. Not strictly an opera or a play, the dialogue is spit out in rhyme. The whole thing is like a jazz piece or a poetry slam. Chi-Raq has a unique style that mostly works. At times it’s rhyme for the sake of rhyme – like a Muhammad Ali poem and just as awkward.
The film brings to mind nothing so much as the 2011 Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now?, a similarly mixed film. Perhaps there’s something about ambitious and weighty message movies that interferes with clear narratives. May need to evaluate these films on a different scale as they focus on message/change first, entertainment second. I wonder if Lee saw this film; there’s a scene early in Chi-Raq at a nightclub where the mostly female audience move in an elaborate choreographed dance, which hugely recalls the striking opening to Where Do We Go Now?. I’d like to think it’s a shout-out and not a coincidence.
Chi-Raq opens on a startling graphic image of the map of the United States made entirely of guns; Spike could have been a graphic designer – don’t think there has ever been a more visually oriented filmmaker, as odd as that may sound. Yes, all filmmakers are visual – it’s sort of a requirement of the art form – but Lee really possesses a skill for imagery and iconography that transcends film.
After the first of several performances of Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” and a proclamation that THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, the stage is set for the story with a series of sickening statistics illustrating the beyond disturbing fact that fewer Americans were killed in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars than in Chicago during that same period of time…
Samuel L. Jackson fills the role of the Greek Chorus in the character of Dolmedes, and guides us through the story of this updating of Lysistrata. Interestingly, screenwriters Lee and Kevin Willmott have largely retained the character names from the original satirical comedy.
Lysistrata (wonderfully played by Teyonah Parris), a parentless inhabitant of the South Side of Chicago doesn’t even know of a time without violence. Her boyfriend Demetrius (Nick Cannon), a rising rapper renamed Chi-Raq after the cynical portmanteau bestowed on the city, is a leader of the purple-clad Spartans “organization”. Along with their orange-wearing sworn enemies, the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), the gangs are locked in a never-ending conflict.
Constant gun violence is an accepted part of life for Lysistrata, but her cynical exterior is being worn down by the senseless tragedy, and after the death of yet another innocent, she’s willing to be advised by her wise neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) that there may be a way for women to stop the violence…
It’s a mostly clever allegory, borrowing the concept of the sex strike for peace. At times it may be a bit too faithful to the original story, though. For example, in the original, Lysistrata’s army took over the Acropolis, whose treasury was vital to the war effort. It doesn’t totally follow for her film counterparts to seize a military base; leaving aside the fact that in modern life there isn’t a single site that is crucial for making war, the protagonists aren’t actually trying to stop war – they’re stamping out street violence.
Surprisingly, this mixed message actually provides for one of the film’s great powers; the juxtaposition of the macro and micro issues. The defining event in the film that acts as the agent of change is the accidental murder of a seven-year young girl caught in the crossfire of gang violence. That event strengthens the resolve of the protagonist and is the main (but not only) impetus for everything that follows. But, poignantly, young Patti’s murder is often overshadowed both in the community and the film.
John Cusack has a great performance as Father Mike Corridan, leader of the local church and his character in some ways is the whole movie writ small. He is a bit of an enigma as a white spiritual leader in a predominantly black community, and at first he comes off as a bit grandiose – a figure more interested in advancing a religious agenda than connecting with the victim’s mother. More preaching than reaching, to borrow the style of the narrative. His first scene immediately following the shooting in which he tries to comfort the mother that her child is in heaven feels hollow to me; but that’s the beauty of the picture – it’s supposed to – it feels hollow to her.
The funeral scene, one of the best in the picture, is even more illustrative. There’s a beautiful song and dance (“All Power” by Cinque Cullar) in an enormous, gorgeous church, filled with people. But the mother feels so alone. It all seems so empty, so inadequate. Father Mike gives a lively, angry, cutting, accurate sermon on the problems that plague the community and led to this situation. It’s all huge and demonstrative and needs to be said. But this poor, grieving young mother looks so small, so alone, so uncomforted.
Jennifer Hudson deserves an Oscar for her minor (in screen time) role as Patti’s mother, Irene. The visual of a grieving mother kneeling in the street trying to clean her slain daughter’s blood from the pavement is absolutely crushing. The over-the-top movie style and attention getting actions of the main characters dominate the tale, but when contrasted with the quiet scenes of this woman’s grief, the picture becomes something more.
I’ve watched a lot of Spike Lee’s movies and I’m still never sure whether this type of counterpoint is intentional or a happy accident. He’s a brilliant filmmaker and the undisputed master of polemical storytelling. But he’s as subtle as a pipe bomb and never seems to place any value on understatement. He’s too gifted and intelligent and has been making fantastic pictures for far too long to be “accidently” doing anything, much less juxtaposing loud and soft dynamics, but it really does seem that these quiet displays of emotion elude him. I don’t mean that they’re unintentional, but I keep wishing for him to develop these softer moments and build something from them; to feel more like a crucial piece of narrative and less like a breather.
Because the main problem with Chi-Raq is something of a recurring one for Lee; too many plates in the air. This isn’t a particularly rare problem for visionary artists, but what is unique in Spike’s case is that it’s not an editing problem. Many other brilliant artists have problems keeping a focused narrative and just need a good editor to rein them in and help refine the message. But Lee has worked with talented editors, not to mention that he is an extremely capable self-editor; he does have exhaustive history of working within the time constraints of advertisements and music videos, and his pictures all show his brilliant cutting instincts.
No, I think these are issues that stem from the writing stage. Lee will go down in film history as one of the most visionary and important filmmakers, and the simple fact is that sometimes he just has more ideas than can fit in a single picture. It’s not really a deal-breaker, but his pictures often feel over-stuffed – less overlong than overbusy.
In Chi-Raq, there are too many characters and too many storylines. Sam Jack’s character Dolmedes doesn’t really simplify the story with his narration, because he goes on and on. There’s a whole segment with a confederate hearted Army Major (King Kong, unbelievably overplayed by David Patrick “Warriors…come out to play-ee-ay!!” Kelly) that is just downright bizarre, but more importantly takes up a good five minutes of screen-time right in the heart of the picture when the momentum needs to be building – instead the thing jumps a rail.
But it’s a good movie and production for all of that. One thing about writing about a Spike Lee joint is that you use the phrase “long-time collaborator” a lot. Enough that you should probably copy it to the clipboard. Many if not all filmmakers like to work with people with whom they have experience; it makes sense. But some build up a John Ford-like stable of recurring players, and chief among these may be Lee. While filmmakers need to be careful not to fall into a rut when using the same collaborators, as a fan/viewer, it’s kind of reassuring to see people return. Aside from the nice aspect of loyalty, it’s really interesting to see the work of a filmmaking team mature each time. It’s very much the age of the auteur director, and Spike is certainly a very powerful voice, but maybe that’s why it’s so fascinating that he’s not the only voice. I eagerly look for Terence Blanchard, former DP Malik Hassan Sayeed, current DP Matthew Libatique and others in the credits each time.
All of Lee’s films are anchored by music; this is an artist who uses every tool at his disposal to tell his story. Even by those standards, Chi-Raq is a very musical piece. There’s a rhythm to every line, every scene. Even outside of the dialogue, the songs are so prominent, featuring synchronization and even occasional choreography. The lyrics to the opening number, “Pray 4 My City” by Nick Cannon are actually written out on a black screen for the first few minutes before the title, acting almost like an overture. With music that is so front and center, you could almost expect no actual score. Fortunately Lee has an excellent understanding of the need for contrast and once again taps long-time collaborator (see?) Terence Blanchard. From the first swells of the orchestra, Blanchard shows his mastery of quiet, strong themes that provide narrative import.
The acting in the film is solid, with Hudson and Parris the big standouts. As the heroine, Parris really does convey real character growth in a believable and authentic performance. That’s hard to do with so many bombastic scenes. Cannon doesn’t have much of an arc, but he has great stage presence. I expect to see more from him and Parris.
Angela Bassett turns in her usual strong performance, and as mentioned before, Cusack delivers. Just about everyone else is playing for the last row of the theater, but then it’s that kind of production. The one scene between Snipes and Dave Chappelle is a riot.
Chi-Raq may be the most important movie Spike Lee has made in years; the political and cultural climate are more ready than ever to hear this message. Lee powerfully and mostly successfully takes a story over 2400 years old and makes something fresh of it by applying its satirical power to focus on black on black gun violence. While the satire and bombast are a bit too heavy handed, the film is powerful and moving. Highly recommended.
The Representation Test Score: A (13 pts!)
|Main Cast||Nick Cannon Chi-Raq
Teyonah Parris Lysistrata
Wesley Snipes Cyclops
Angela Bassett Miss Helen
|Plot||A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.|
|Tagline||This is an Emergency!!!|
|Writers||Kevin Willmott (written by) and, Spike Lee (written by) …|