What to do in a city where gangs are caught in a perpetual cycle of violence? Dolemides watches and narrates with bemused interest, noticing the strong-willed Lysistrata who's tired of her man Chi-Raq trading blood for blood. Taking a cue from her comrades in Liberia, Lysistrata leads the women of Chicago on a sex strike until the men are willing to put down their pistols and talk peace. Spike Lee directs Chi-Raq from a screenplay co-written by Spike and Kevin Wilmott, and stars Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack.
The first 10 minutes or so of Chi-Raq had me thinking back to Red Hook Summer. That was another film where Spike Lee seemed suddenly reinvigorated, not necessarily mimicking the rhythm and editing of earlier classic efforts like Do the Right Thing, but echoing their energy. As one of the the long takes opening that film followed the central characters through Red Hook, Lee had again found a way to tap into a complex, living, breathing community in his fiction the way then-recent documentary entries had shifted to. I had the same sense during the opening of Chi-Raq, where Spike drops us into a club moments before a shooting, transposing various voices from social media and texts with some rapid cutting that embodies the strong connection between the musicians and the crowd.
The reason I keep going back to that opening sequence (among some others) is that I can't think of too many ways to discuss Chi-Raq that aren't anchored in the aesthetic dimensions of the movie. Like so many of Spike's later films, the majority of the discussions here seem culled from an article or two and massaged into the dialogue. He hasn't been unsuccessful in this, but he's failed to use the dramatic situation and characters to build up much additional insight around these basic well-known talking points and statistics. Awhile after the movie was over, I was left with the impression I'd spent two hours letting Spike read a well-researched New York Times article to me that I'd already read myself.
That's a shame considering that, as usual, he demonstrates such a unique command over every aspect of the film. The craft is so clearly on display here that it's hard to imagine this isn't exactly the film he wanted to make (the production itself seems to confirm that as well), which makes the scattershot inconsistency and general lack of depth confusing. There are a handful of scenes that have some real, lasting power—which I'm sure we'll get to—but so much of the movie is all over the place that those sequences didn't connect and build into anything significant for me. Even when the tone shifts to near-Abrahams & Zucker levels of goofy satire (a soldier being carted away in a straight jacket comically shaking his head and repeating "big booty big booty"), it can sometimes be really funny and effective—the problem is we're recalibrating in nearly every scene to the movie we're supposed to be watching.In a few ways, I'm right there with you in your response to Chi-Raq. But in the most important ways I'm diametrically opposed. If Chi-Raq dropped today, with none of Spike's previous films to reference, I'd feel a bit more like you do. Since Chi-Raq follows a period of restless creativity when the same social and economic ills plague black Americans, I have to think of it as the energetic, optimistic, and pointed follow-up to Do the Right Thing. In 1989, Spike saw a simmering pot of tensions ready to explode in any direction with black Americans needing to take over their economic lives. In 2015 there's no such economic push, there are already rappers and gangsters living on the shadow economy, and without government stepping in and bringing widespread employment things aren't going to get better.
That's where I don't think you're too far off comparing Red Hook Summer, especially with Chi-Raq's spectacular opening. Where Red Hook Summer, and Do the Right Thing, got knee-deep into the rhythm of daily life, Chi-Raq goes straight into a verse from the chorus, then a character beat, and right back into the chorus. Spike always said he wanted to make a full musical and here he manages to do that without including many musical numbers thanks to the chorus / character structure. With Chi-Raq everyone lives to the rhythm of the music in some way, be it from Angela Bassett's firm and self-assured rhymes, to Samuel L. Jackson's insightful MC work, and, in the most surprising development, John Cusack tearing up a sermon with more fire than I've ever seen from him.
Chi-Raq pivots on an act of violence too, much like Red Hook Summer with the priest confessing after he is attacked, and in Do the Right Thing with the murder of Radio Raheem. Unlike those films, Chi-Raq is more concerned with the aftermath of the violence instead of the build up followed by the community reaction. This is why the musical structure is beautifully employed even if it results in few musical numbers. The violence of daily life is built right in with the dialogue, and expressed through the gunfire texts and the militia wardrobe Lysistrata clothes herself in. It's a fable that acknowledges it's a fable, a happy ending that's probably not possible, as violence is so deep in their lives that it takes a miracle and the involvement of wealthy companies to solve all the problems. Spike is more optimistic than normal here, celebrating Chicago in all its darkly colorful glory, and I was able to jump from scene to scene when I thought of the music of the dialogue as an extension of the violence.
Bits of culture seem destined to become in-jokes for a select few. This isn't (entirely) out of privilege, but the sheer luck of being in the right place to receive the good just as they're delivered. The Adventures of Pete and Pete is one of those gems, a surreal and magnificently directed comedy for kids which only seemed to air in the hours kids aren't awake. You can also put MTV's Liquid Television in this category, which helped acquaint me to the likes of Aeon Flux and the works of Bill Plympton.
The only reason I know about Sockbaby is through one sentence my friend Kristen uttered when I worked at University Cinemas in Normal, IL. Sockbaby wasn't nearly as prominent as Fensler Films' G.I. Joe shorts or "Numa Numa", but it was the most important in forming my sense of humor and finding short films to watch. I revisit it every few months and it's every bit as fresh and fun as it was when I was a lad of 20.
Sockbaby fueled much of my waking existence for a significant period of life. Jacob, similarly infected with the Sockbaby bug, and I would quote from it constantly. Our days at the movie theater transcended to, "Hello Jacob," "Hello Andrew," "How we doin' today?" "Hello, what's with no hello," "We're un-Hello now." My love of Sockbaby transitioned to the most obscure Halloween costume I've ever put together. Folks I came across thought I was dressed as a pimp and never questioned the stuffed sock with drawn features I had cradled in my arms. I adore Sockbaby more than most major films of the last few years.