Sunday, February 14, 2016


Although it begins with promise, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq (2015) quickly collapses under the weight of its own improvisational ambitions.  Lee's film is an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a work that is itself a vulgar cacophony of topical allusions with broadly caricatured stereotypes standing in for the warring Spartans and Greeks, and, of course, absurdly obscene.  It could be argued that Chi-Raq in form (or, rather, formlessness) and its aptitude for grotesque offensiveness is true to the ancient text -- but this doesn't make the film any better.  Some works can't be successfully adapted -- I have never seen an even remotely successful stage version of Lysistrata and, so, it is not surprising that the film doesn't make much sense, expends its energies making too many attacks, and, like Aristophanes' original (as least in modern versions) isn't even remotely funny.

Lee's film begins with a Godard-style montage of words -- it's a rap anthem about Chicago that makes the point that there have been more casualties in the gang-wars in Chicago then in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  After this impressive start, the film introduces us to the eponymous Chi-raq, a charismatic gangster rapper, his girlfriend Lysistrata, and Samuel Jackson who plays the part of the chorus.  The movie's script is written in rhythmic verse often with internal rhymes as well as end-stopped couplets.  (No entire film has been presented in verse since, I think, Anthony Burgess' rhyming translation of Cyrano de Bergerac was filmed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau in 1990).  The hip-hop stichomythia is reasonably witty and some of the extended orations by Samuel Jackson, Lysistrata, and a White priest played by John Cusack are effective -- however, as is always the case with rap, the viewer has to be willing to tolerate rhymes such as "couch" and "nappy pouch" (meaning vagina).  Although everyone is willing to accept the daily slaughter of young Black men, when a small girl is gunned down, the women in the 'hood decide to enforce a sex strike against their men -- "No peace, no pussy!" is their battle-cry.  (Lysistrata develops the sex strike idea in consultation with Angela Bassett, a wise older lady who is disgusted with the violence in the neighborhood.)  Despite much initial resistance by many of the women, ultimately sisterhood proves to be powerful and the ban on sex is instituted.  This leads to outrage among the men, including the Knights of Euphrates, apparently an African-American fraternal lodge that has among its fez-hatted members Oedipus -- the level of the film's crudeness can be measured by the fact that Oedipus complains that he has to make all decisions in consultation "with (his) mommy."  At this point, Lee loses heart -- apparently, he is hesitant to commit to story that emphasizes black-on-black violence and, so, the movie spirals out of control as he forces his characters to spew forth dogma on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement as well as myriad of other issues.  John Cusack's great oration, a very impressive speech, involves the gun lobby and gun laws.  Lee also addresses economic inequality, mass incarceration, and a whole variety of lesser or greater evils -- including insurance companies sending representatives into the ghettos to sell life insurance policies on young black men.  It's all too much and the film becomes completely chaotic when the women invade a National Guard armory, humiliate the mostly White soldiers, and, then, proclaim their revolt from the fortifications -- this gives Lee a chance to take shots of the Confederate flag although why it would be prominently displayed in a Chicago armory is unclear to me.  The Mayor and his Black lackey try to persuade the women to surrender.  (The mayor has a Black wife that he visits in bed dressed as King Tut -- he uses his scepter to push aside the bedclothes only to find that the gorgeous woman is wearing a chastity belt:  it's a totally gratuitous sequence that doesn't make any sense at all -- why King Tut?)  In the end, Chi-Raq representing the men challenges Lysistrata to a sexual combat -- the first to climax loses the battle and, thus, the struggle.  This intercourse takes place in a pugilistic arena on a brass bed, but the climactic (no pun intended) copulation is interrupted when Cyclops, the leader of the Trojans (Wesley Snipes) from Troy town surrenders his guns and other weapons, heaping them on the altar-like bed where Chi-Raq and Lysistrata are contending.  The men capitulate and agree to stop killing one another and a general orgy ensues -- the film ends in Cusack's cathedral with hymns of Thanksgiving.  Lee is ambitious and its a big movie -- sex protests are staged throughout the world as the women's strike becomes general:  we see Japanese, Brazilian, Greek, Pakistani, etc. women marching on the streets with obscene banners proclaiming "No Peace, No Pussy!"  But, even, fundamental narrative coherence collapses -- at one point, Lee treats us to spectacular sex scene between Chi-Raq and Lysistrata; we have the impression that Lysistrata has broken her own oath, but, in fact, the scene is apparently motivated as a flashback -- it's as if Lee had a particularly erotic and salacious sex scene with no place to insert it in his film and so just tossed it in at random to keep things lively.  Lee supports White anxieties that sex among African-Americans is ten-thousand times more lively and pleasurable than the wan embraces of Caucasian folks -- even women having sex involuntarily (for instance, Chi-Raq's mother turning tricks) moan like cats in heat and wiggle their behinds enthusiastically.  (Lee has always had a ribald sensibility -- his first film was She's gotta have it and I still recall with horror the sexual taunts with which a disappointed female greats her inefficient lover in Bamboozled.  As always with Lee, the visual aspect of the film is mostly unimportant -- the movie is overlit and the shots are crowded with people, most curvaceous girls who look like MTV models.  The soundtrack featuring jazz by Terence Blanchard, a long-time Lee collaborator, is generally gorgeous -- many of the scenes are lushly scored to Gospel-style music.  The film is a spectacle, that's for certain, but it's too diffuse and crudely made to be effective.  

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