You can accuse Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq of a lot of things – being messy, being wildly uneven, being didactic – but you certainly can’t accuse it of being boring or unambitious. Not content with merely updating the famous ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata (in which the women of Greece band together to stop war by denying their men…physical pleasure, shall we say), Lee also turns all of the dialogue into rhyming verse, adds a Greek chorus in the person of Samuel L. Jackson, lets John Cusack quite literally preach the film’s lesson in a nearly ten-minute sequence, tosses in some musical numbers and farce, and still manages to convey every bit of his anger, fury, and disgust at the plague of gun violence that wreaks such havoc and destruction on inner-city streets. (Indeed, for all the complaining that’s been done about how Lee is depicting Chicago, it’s obvious that he’s talking about much bigger issues here than simply the problems of any one place.) So, no, you can’t fault Chi-Raq for being timid, and you can’t ever say that it’s boring – even when scenes don’t work, Lee’s passion and message are so searing that it’s hard to look away or ignore it, and his theatrical staging (never more appropriate than in this heightened piece) constantly keeps you on your toes.
And yet, everything I’ve been saying notwithstanding, it’s a remarkably great piece of work, one whose flaws somehow make it more interesting and compelling throughout. It’s frequently hilarious; Jackson’s monologues are scene stealers (making your Greek chorus inspired by Dolemite is never a bad choice, and especially not when you’re letting Jackson cut loose and have the time of his life), but throughout, Lee’s comic timing is great, most notably in a sequence in a strip club where a gang tries to deal with the lack of ladies in various ways. (Of course, the fact that that sequence features an appearance by a truly great comedian doesn’t hurt at all, but really, the whole cast does a great job.) And while some of it is almost too farcical – I’m thinking here especially of the long meeting with a racist military general – it works, by and large, and makes the trenchant and painful commentary easier to swallow. Because make no mistake: this is an angry film, and it’s got frustration, rage, bitterness, and scolding to go around, from gang members to the political structure of the country and beyond. And when Lee drops the satirical aspects of the film and lets the drama hit you, full force, such as the righteous fury of the funeral monologue for a young girl killed in the crossfire, or a late-film confrontation between a gang leader and Cusack’s religious figure, it’s impossible not to feel empathy, rage, and sadness.
Is Chi-Raq a perfect film? Definitely not. Is it the best thing I’ve seen all year? In no way. But in others, it’s among the most compelling pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year, one whose uniquely personal nature, societal commentary, broad comedy, and astonishing style make it unlike anything else out there. And if it doesn’t all work, most of it does, making the points it wants to make, having some fun, and drawing attention to far bigger – and more complex issues – than many so-called “issue” films that make it to theaters. And that, as much as anything else, is why I kind of loved it, flaws and all.