CINEPHILIA: Chi-Raq’s vignettes are filled with human worth

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) unites the women on both sides of a gang war by starting a sex strike.

In the opening minutes of Chi-Raq, a title card informs us that since 2001, more Americans have died on Chicago streets than in the Iraq War, the results of gang violence perpetuated by poverty and a government that has neglected a ghettoized part of the city.

Spike Lee has never been known for subtlety. If his films are overly didactic, they make up for it in passion, energy, and earnestness. They’re angry only because tears are too passive to motivate change.

Spike Lee’s latest joint is a sermon, a comedy, a tragedy, a musical, a poem, and a modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Nearly the entire film is written in verse with the majority of the dialogue delivered as couplets — “This situation is out of control / ‘cause I’m in front of an empty stripper pole.” The film is structured as a series of vignettes — some funny, some sad, some both at the same time — that revolve around all the parties involved in a gang war.

On the southside of Chicago, firefights and stray bullets from the Trojans and the Spartans kill innocent bystanders along with the young black men initiating the violence. Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the nom de plume of the Spartans leader, is in a war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), the one-eyed commandant of the Trojans.

Following the death of an innocent teenager on a botched drive-by shooting, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) unites the women on both sides in a sex-strike. “No peace, no pussy!”

This may make Chi-Raq seem like a bore, a passive exposure to Lee’s ramblings on gun culture and racial inequality in Chicago and America at large. Chi-Raq is motivated by beauty and sympathy; its luscious widescreen frames transform the underbelly of Chicago into a stage decorated with life and colour. Human worth is implicit in nearly every film, yet so few feel quite as alive as this one.

Most of Lee’s films are theatrical, and in Chi-Raq the screen often feels like a proscenium. The compositions and blocking often place the viewer at the other end of the dialogue, as if we’re sitting at the front row of a play. The audience is always the most important character. During a sermon at a local church, the camera sits in the pew. A peace accord in the denouement faces the spectator, as though we too are signing the contract. And as is customary with ancient Greek plays, the film has an omniscient narrator who addresses the audience directly — played by, of course, a very funny Samuel L. Jackson.

Chi-Raq functions under a similar, albeit more erratic, mode as Lee’s 1988 masterpiece Do The Right Thing. It glides between disjointed scenes, characters, and scenarios with no narrative momentum but an internal logic, which in the case of Chi-Raq is a no-rules kind of consistency.

Lee’s preaching has rarely felt as organic, because by wrapping his lessons in a sheen of elaborate artifice, he has made a film as stunning to look as it is politically engaged. It’s a dance of conflicting forms where somehow all the movements feel just right.