One Thing I Love Today: Spike Lee's amazing 'Chi-raq' should have been on my top 10 list
One Thing I Love Today is a daily column dedicated to putting a spotlight on some pop culture item worth your attention. After all, there's enough snark out there. Why not start every day with one quick shotgun blast of positivity?
When people say "What movie is missing from the conversation if you think the Oscars were too white?" this year, the answer to that question, first and foremost, is Spike Lee's Chi-raq.
And I am just as guilty of missing the boat as every member of the Academy.
One of the saddest images in any film in recent memory is Jennifer Hudson scrubbing the blood of her dead 7-year-old out of the pavement of a Chicago sidewalk, and it is not, by any means, the best or most powerful moment in Spike Lee's latest remarkable film. Chi-raq is stylistically bold, and it uses a heightened theatrical reality to get to some brutally raw ideas. It is Spike Lee at his most Spike Lee, and I owe him an apology for making my top ten list last year without seeing his film first.
The fact that I did not treat a Spike Lee film as a vital part of the conversation about the year's movies is partially on me, because I should know better, but it's also a testament to the way Spike has evolved as a filmmaker. There was a time when every new film by Spike Lee was treated as a potential event, but he works so often and in so many different voices and modes at this point that it's hard to keep up. I'm happy to have caught up with it now, and it deserves to be seen and celebrated and discussed. It is the best overall realization of theme and character and voice that Lee's made since The 25th Hour, and it's in the very top tier of his work overall.
Let's just take a moment to appreciate the script by Kevin Willmott and Lee, written in rhyming verse for the entire thing as a nod to Aristophanes, whose Lysistrata is the inspiration for this angry, heartbroken, and profoundly adult look at gun violence. It's a gorgeous movie as shot by Matthew Libatique (shocking, considering how consistently awesome he is), and there is an energy to it that is the very best of what Lee does, scene after scene after scene. It's funny, it's shocking, it's not afraid to rub your nose in things, and it is incredibly upfront about what's going on. Spike Lee has never been a subtle man, and why should he be? It is that voice, that staunch refusal to let anyone else determine whether or not he's going to be heard, that has been his defining characteristic since She's Gotta Have It, and I think this makes a fascinating bookend to that movie considering how powerfully feminist this film is.
How could it not be? The original play and this adaptation are both about who has the power in this world, and how real power works. A child is killed in a drive-by shooting, and the women of Chicago, led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), devise a plan to create real and lasting peace by denying the men of Chi-raq any sex of any kind. "No peace, no pussy" becomes the rallying cry of a growing sisterhood, and what results is satire, yes, but also deeply painful in places and thoughtful and, like I said, very adult. This is the best American mainstream movie about sex from last year, and I say that while acknowledging that there are very few movies that deal with the subject in a way that I think is worth discussion.
Most of the time, sex is simply the setting for a scene, or it's handled in a way that's just about eye candy. And that's fine, honestly. I don't think most filmmakers know how to approach the subject on film without somehow invoking the film language of pornography. It's telling that the most human and moving sex scene on my published top ten list in 2015 was in Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Peter Strickland's starkly formal The Duke Of Burgundy was on my runners-up list, and I think it's very smart. But is it also genuinely hot? That's a really tricky thing to pull off, and I think Chi-raq does it. After all, if we aren't meant to feel the loss of sex as an audience, how is the movie supposed to work?
Nick Cannon and Teyonah Parris both do strong work as the couple at the heart of this entire social explosion, and Parris is a force of nature here. Beautiful and strong and in full control of her own sexual power, Lysistrata is one of those roles that any actor would kill to play. It makes sense that she would be able to drive this movement, and not just because she's stunning. It's because there is a ferocity to her that is founded in moral courage. She has a vision of how things have to be, and a strategy for how to make that change, and one she starts to run with it, she grows stronger with every step.
I'd argue that this movie, like The Hateful Eight, has an opening overture in grand theatrical style, although it's done in rap instead of an orchestral score, and considering the war of words that Lee and Tarantino have exchanged in the press over the years, it always cracks me up how Samuel L. Jackson loves working with both of them. Jackson is the narrator here, and he looks like he couldn't be any more delighted with what he's been given to do and say. From a fascinating freeze-framed nightclub full of people to a straight-up parody of the famous speech from Patton, Jackson's role is shot in the most playful way possible, but what he's got to say is no joke. There's something urgent in the pulse of this film, and it feels the same way it did when Spike made Do The Right Thing. He's got that same fire in his belly, that same combination of anger and hope.
Why is Spike Lee a great filmmaker? His craft, obviously, which has never been more on point than it is here, but more than that. It is because he has the courage to call us all out at our worst, and the heart to hope that we can be better. And if the Oscars are truly the story that Hollywood wants to tell about itself each year, then ignoring work that is this alive, this in touch with the real world, and this committed to raising the conversation, makes that story a story the rest of the world will eventually tune out.
Chi-raq is available on Amazon Prime Video, and you can also pick it up on Blu-ray via the Amazon link below.
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