Saturday, June 13, 2020

Chi-Raq Goes For Broke Creatively And Succeeds More Often Than Not

Chi-Raq, a 2015 effort from writer/director Spike Lee, establishes its go-for-broke tendencies right off the bat by opening with what's basically an overture. A Nick Cannon song entitled Pray 4 My City plays in its entirety while lyrics for the song flash up on the screen against a black background. Once it's finished, we get a unique rendering of the map of America while audio of a pastor's preaching playing in the background. Only then does the story of Chi-Raq get underway. Kicking off with two separate prologues is a bold move and it's one that establishes right away that Chi-Raq is not going to be a movie aiming to be ordinary. Instead, Chi-Raq wants to be bold, unique, and, most importantly, say something about the modern world.

Those ambitions are put towards a story that takes place inside the Southside of modern-day Chicago, Illinois. Here, a war between two gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, is raging in the streets. The violence between the gangs keeps on taking lives and something must be done about it. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), whose dating Trojans leader Demetrius (Nick Cannon), comes up with a plan. She and all the women in the city unite to withhold sex from the men in their lives. The hope is that the men will be so desperate for intimacy they'll be forced to give into the demands for the gang war to cease.

Chi-Raq's story is based on the 411 B.C. story Lysistrata penned by Aristophanes. Chi-Raq doesn't just borrow names and the concept of a sex strike from this story. They've also decided to keep the rhyming scheme of the original text. While Lee's dialogue is decidedly set in the modern-day world with its reference to the Sandy Hook School shooting and Ben Carson, it's all told in rhymes. The fact that Lee fully commits to this style of dialogue for an entire modern-day movie is, on its own, impressive. The fact that Chi-Raq actually fares well in executing this idea is doubly impressive, particularly given all the weighty material it's grappling with. It's easy to see a version of this where the rhyming distracted from contemplations of corrupt police forces and racial profiling.

Instead, Lee's handling of the rhyming is able to handle seriousness when the moment requires it. Meanwhile, the wall-to-wall rhyming also instills a heightened sensibility into Chi-Raq that the movie as a whole takes advantage of to interesting results. For example, Samuel L. Jackson, playing narrator Dolemedes, can interact with both in-movie characters and the audience without even blinking an eye. This character is truly capable of anything and that's a role that proves most entertaining to watch, particularly in the hands of Jackson. Meanwhile, the stylized approach of Chi-Raq also informs its memorable production design & costume design.

The contrasting orange and purple colors belonging to each of the rival gangs are found all throughout Chi-Raq. Whether it's the sets or the wardrobe, there's always a heavy use of carefully-chosen and visually pleasing colors on-screen. Less successful in terms of bold creative swings are some of the casting choices. John Cusack, for example, comes off as slightly miscast as priest Mike Corridan. While not terrible in the role, scenes calling him to be exceedingly passionate while giving a sermon just don't feel authentic coming from Cusack. Despite Cusack clearly giving the performance his all, his work in this scene still feels hollow rather than something that lights a fire in your belly.

Similarly not quite gelling fully are certain subplots, like a resistance group formed by Angela Bassett's character, that end up vanishing for distractingly long periods of time. It's admirable that Chi-Raq is trying to juggle so much at once. Yet, certain parts of its plot don't quite get the attention they deserve. Still, on the whole, Chi-Raq does work in so many ways. As a call to arms, as a bold fusing of ancient storytelling and modern-day filmmaking, as a vehicle for a star-making turn for Teyonah Parris. Chi-Raq is messy but the ways it does succeed, as well as its go-for-broke creative spirit, prove so hard to resist.

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