Spike Lee has been making films for thirty years but with Chi-Raq he has managed to make something that feels quite new and he’s done so by turning to something very old. The movie is an adaption of an Aristophanes play about women going on sex strike to stop the war, first performed in 411BC. As with the Ancient Greek source material much of the dialogue is in rhyme and this, along with the gang culture setting, makes it most reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Even this comparison doesn’t quite fit though. This film is something else and quite what that is is hard to categorise. Chi-Raq is entirely its own thing..
Some of the cast seem committed to it as a moving drama. Jennifer Hudson plays the mother of a little girl who is shot dead in gangster crossfire and she is going for it with the raw emotion. Hudson is amazing at this sort of thing; every time that woman plays anguished my heart feels like it’s being ripped out of my chest; I don’t know how she’s not a bigger star. John Cusack is ramping up the sentiment too with his performance as a righteous priest. He get a seemingly endless scene where he passionately preaches peace at the child’s funeral and the man is giving it everything he’s got.
However, others in the ensemble appear to be playing in a comedy. Samuel L. Jackson is hamming it to the max in the role of the Greek chorus. His soliloquies are as OTT as anything the actor has ever done and he’s obviously having a whale of a time. Dave Chapelle turns up at one point as well for a little skit on there being no pole dancers to work in his club. Then for one brief moment toward the end it even turns into a musical with big choreographed dance numbers.
Another thing the film seems to want to be is a feminist parable. Clearly the women are taking control and standing up against a misogynist patriarchy. The problem is that the men are depicted as sexist entitled pigs and it is clearly a social order the women were happy to support until one child too many got killed. Also, are we to accept that the only thing of any value these women have to hold back from their partners, their only bargaining chip is their bodies? That’s not a very empowered message. There is some unnecessary female nudity too.
Chi-Raq isn’t a tragedy then and it isn’t a comedy. It’s not a musical and it’s not really an effective allegory. What it is is an experiment and actually, despite its varying tones, it kind of works. Not as well as I think it was intended to; for the first twenty minutes I thought this was going to be one of the films of the year but then it lost its way, but it is engaging and endearing and never less than entertaining. The performances are confident (only Cusack feels ill-placed), the style fresh and the script impressive. The social commentary is reductive but it still has some power and the intention of the film makers is honourable. Better than all of that though it’s different and often that is value enough.