Wednesday, December 9, 2015
TEARS OF RAGE: a review of "Chi-Raq"
Screenplay Written by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
Produced and Directed by Spike Lee
**** (four stars)
Over and again as I viewed the outrageous, explosive "Chi-Raq," the latest, surrounded in controversy "Joint" from Spike Lee, I found myself bathed in the flow of my own tears.
Not through sadness or sorrow, per se. But, through the release of long pent up frustration, intolerance and incredulity regarding the lives that we are all living in 21st century America, lives that should be rejected with the fullest vehemence by all of society, we have seemingly turned into a life of complacency and even normalcy as we face week after week hearing about one more gun massacre after another...and whatever outrage that does exist falls entirely upon the deaf ears of our leaders.
It is a shameful and inexcusable era we are living in and moreso, it is an era that is increasingly infuriating because how many more times do we need to read/hear/see the news about yet another shooting, yet another violent death of a child, to which we will all hear the empty, pointless "thoughts and prayers" of our chief politicians, so many of whom are in the back pockets of the NRA in the first place. I don't know about you, but I cannot take anymore and if even one more person who has bastardized the 2nd Amendment explains to me that we cannot have gun laws simply because someone will undoubtedly break that law, I will find myself frothing at the mouth, for with that strand of so-called logic, why have ANY laws??? I'm sorry, but we, as a society, have to try because even if the attempt is futile, doing nothing is not an option!!
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" speaks to that very frustration and outrage with the strength of an artistic powder keg. This is Lee's most vibrant, vital, explosive work since the blitzkrieg of his own "Bamboozled" (2000), it marks a full return to the peak of his powers of provocation and artistic excellence and he has released one of the most audacious films of his nearly 30 year career. Believe me, it could not be more timely and downright necessary, yet who knows if any of you out there will even take the chance and see it. I hope that this review will convince you to engage with this uniquely passionate and defiantly artistic experience.
Based upon "Lysistrata," the 411 BC play written by Aristophanes, Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" updates the tale to 2015 Chicago, as murder rates in the city have already eclipsed the total deaths in our wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 4th of July just this year saw 55 deaths. A surprisingly impressive and imposing Nick Cannon stars as the rapper Chi-Raq and leader of the purple clad Spartans who are caught in the throes of an endless gang war with the orange clad Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).
After a shootout at a nightclub where Chi-Raq is performing (brutal shades of the November 13th Paris attacks at Le Bataclan), which leaves a few of Cyclops' members injured and/or killed, Cyclops retaliates by nearly burning down Chi-Raq's home, which then leads to another shootout on the Chicago streets. The following morning as Chi-Raq's girlfriend Lysistrata (a terrific Teyonah Parris) happens across yet another crime scene, this time the body of 11 year old Patti, struck dead by a stray bullet, and mourned in anguish by her Mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) as she pleads with the surrounding bystanders to please speak up if they had seen anything at all.
As Father Mike Corridan (a towering John Cusack), the powerful neighborhood social/racial/anti-gun activist and Roman Catholic priest, offers a $5000 reward for any information leading to the shooter still produces no results, Lysistrata, after taking counsel from the neighborhood book loving Peace activist Miss Helen (an excellent Angela Bassett), persuades all of the women of the Spartans and Trojans to begin a sex strike until all of the fighting comes to a halt. Once Lysistrata and her army take over a local armory, the battle of the sexes explodes, leaving the fate of Chicago's soul in the balance.
As dynamically narrated directly to the camera/audience by the one man Greek chorus of Dolmedes (a vivacious Samuel L. Jackson)--himself a completely updated version of 1970's Blaxploitation urban hero Dolemite--and with dialogue that is spoken completely in rhymed verse from beginning to end, it is no wonder that much controversy has been sparked over "Chi-Raq" as many have feared that the film would make light of a subject as morbidly serious as our nation's gun violence epidemic. Point taken. But that said, what of Stanley Kubrick's classic "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" (1964), which poked its tongue out at nothing less than nuclear evisceration? Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is easily cut from that same excessive cloth and frankly, I felt that Lee's film essentially served a concoction that was partially Kubrick, partially Director Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo And Juliet" (1996), a dash of Director Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979) and copious amounts of material reminiscent of the brilliantly enveloping and disturbing cosmic ghettos as presented through the 1970's albums by Funkadelic. This is filmmaking that is decidedly poetic and vulgar, often irreverent, brash and brazen and most of all, it is unquestionably and audaciously fearless.
Yes, "Chi-Raq" is a satire, as our Master Of Ceremonies Dolmedes explains at the film's outset (and just had Lee had also performed in the opening moments of "Bamboozled"). Yes, "Chi-Raq" contains some broad comedic laughs as well as rich musical sequences, a squadron of colorful characters all adorned within even more colorful names and costumes. Yes, "Chi-Raq" contains wildly bawdy sequences (including one involving an outlandish Chicago confederate soldier named Major King Kong played by Lee regular David Patrick Kelly) that seem to finally bring the sexual fantasies and conceits depicted within Lee's troublesome "Girl 6" (1996) and "She Hate Me" (2004) into a proper context, as the playfulness suggests much more about men's weaknesses than it ever does about Lysistrata's scantily clad army of women.
But do not be mistaken. From its pulsating core to every frame upon the screen, the tragedy of gun violence is front and center. "Chi-Raq" is fueled by Lee at his most creatively and politically ferocious. "Chi-Raq" represents the fire and brimstone Spike Lee that we have not seen in some time outside of his excellent documentaries and the return to his loud, passionate voice is a most welcome one as he speaks truths that many choose to disregard. "Chi-Raq" is not a film designed to just amiably give audiences what they may be wanting. Spike Lee is giving us precisely what we need. No, this film may not be for everyone and all tastes, and that is perfectly fine because why should it? The core of the film's message is the meat of the matter and even though I am certain this film will make a swift exit from movie theaters, "Chi-Raq" is thunderously essential viewing.
For those who are familiar with the controversy surrounding the film, all I can say to you is that to fully weigh in on the discussion, you have to see the film in order to do so. Not just the film's two minute trailer, which has already received more literal and digital ink than deserved. But the full two hour plus experience. Only then, will you see what Lee has devised and despite the visual razzle dazzle he has displayed across the screen, Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is as serious as the gun violence it is rallying against.
A wordless sequence where Irene, on her hands and knees, is washing the blood of her dead daughter from the sidewalk is appropriately mournful and wrenching. Another where a wheelchair bound former gang member imparts to Chi-Raq much needed life learned wisdom of the futility of the gang warfare, a life that also made his son a paraplegic, is equally sobering. A protest march, where Lee places real life Chicago Mothers carrying photos of their dead children, all killed from gun violence, is profound, startling and blood boiling. And one startling sequence where Miss Helen is visited by an insurance salesman (played by Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith), offering the opportunity to place a life insurance policy upon Helen's teenaged nephew is enraging.
Best of all, is John Cusack's extended, soul shaking monologue in which his character of Father Mike Corridan (himself based upon Chicago's legendary Roman Catholic priest/social activist Father Michael Pfleger) delivers a two-fisted sermon at the funeral of 11 year old Patti, where he riffs and extols upon everything from the life of the gun that murdered Patti (purchased at an Indiana gun show with fake ID and references), to the true economic downfalls of the Black community, the fear that has enshrouded the community due to the rampant gang violence, the public school to prison pipeline, the inhumane complacency and greed that exists within our leaders who will do and say anything for the NRA and gun manufactures instead of the will of the people they were elected to represent and then back again to the endless stream of violence Corridan rightfully and righteously acknowledges as "genocide." John Cusack might not be the most likely individual to find within a Spike Lee Joint, but with his scant amount of scenes, he inserts himself beautifully and with this sequence in particular, his voice growing hoarser the more voluminous it builds, is downright sensational. To one Chicagoan from another, John Cusack has done the soul of Chicago proud.
Yet beyond the city of Chicago itself, Spike Lee has utilized his film to take the setting of my home city and serve it as a metaphor for America itself. In many ways, "Chi-Raq" feels to be very much a companion piece and extension of past Lee films, all set within his home of New York, like the 1970's period piece of neighborhoods long gone in "Crooklyn" (1994) to the increased violence and decline of those very same neighborhoods today as presented in "Clockers" (1995) and "Red Hook Summer" (2012).
In detailing the downfalls of all of our American, predominately Black, working class/working poor neighborhoods and the violence that has now engulfed those neighborhoods, no one is spared from Lee's scornful criticism. From the gangs and "Black On Black Violence" to the murderous members of the police force, Lee's sympathies lie solely with the individuals and families caught in between, as represented by a shocking sequence where Dolmedes, flanked by a gang banger and police officer, fire rounds directly into the camera. Yes, it is an over-the-top moment contained in a film loaded with over-the-top moments but let's face it, we live in over-the-top times demanding of a critical analysis designed to reach whomever, wherever by any means necessary.
"Chi-Raq," a first-rate production in which Lee, alongside his Co-Screenwriter Kevin Willmott, is aided tremendously by his longtime core team Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter, Composer Terence Blanchard and several veterans of what I tend to think of as "The Spike Lee Players," all work feverishly with purpose and vitality to create this unique cinematic vision that blends the mythical and the harshest realities with supreme urgency. I have felt that Lee works best when he has a clear agenda in mind and it is clear that aside from the bleakness and violence, what he wishes to achieve with "Chi-Raq" is to present a world where the sanctity of life is upheld, where hope, forgiveness and redemption are all able to survive and thrive. But, only if we are able to put down the guns and extinguish all means and ways we have devised to extinguish ourselves first.
As the film's central figure of Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris has a most difficult role to fill and achieve as she is essentially an archetype as opposed to a "realistic" human being. Even so, she holds a commanding presence and works wonders as she effortlessly emerges from 'round-the-way girl bystander to warrior to revolutionary Queen. Lysistrata is basically Joan Of Arc, albeit the South Side Of Chicago 2015 version--a larger than life figure in a film that is equally outsized and Parris owns the screen with confidence, strength, and most importantly, an unshakable humanity.
So, with all of the controversies and commentaries surrounding "Chi-Raq" and its intentions and presentations, let's all try to keep everything within a certain sense of perspective here. If the title of the film itself is offensive to you rather than the gun violence that continues to permeate this nation to emergency levels, then you truly need to re-check your priorities. If a creative approach that is decidedly theatrical and even mythological is offensive to you rather than hearing about the latest gun massacre on a regular basis, then you seriously need to re-check your priorities. If the film's more surreal and even downright bizarre elements are offensive to you, rather than the surreal and bizarre realities of a world where it is easier to obtain a gun than it is to register to vote or that individuals named upon the terror no-fly list are still legally able to purchase guns, then you SERIOUSLY need to re-check your priorities!!
Just one day after seeing "Chi-Raq," I happened upon a fact checked tweet from noted Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted November 9th, which stated that this year, 3400 Americans were killed by household firearms over the previous five weeks from that date, the exact same number of Americans killed by terrorism since 2001. Two days before I saw the film, the New York Times ran their first front-page editorial in 95 years (!) specifically addressing the "moral outrage" against the "national disgrace" our American gun culture and violence has become. Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" looks directly into that horrific mouth of madness with brutal force, an ocean of empathy and staggering creativity. Some may decry the film's lack of subtlety. Yet, and I am not able to say this with enough emphasis...we do not live in subtle times and sometimes, an in your-face message is precisely what is demanded instead of shadings and nuances.
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is a wholly entertaining and emotionally exhausting return to his specialized brand of "WAKE UP!" cinema. It is an unrepentant howl of tear stained rage demanding that our society do whatever it takes, and again, by any means necessary, to meet the societal crisis that has not just overtaken my home city of Chicago but our entire nation.
"Chi-Raq" is also one of the finest films I have seen in 2015.