Director Spike Lee's new film Chi-Raq is many things. It's the first film ever produced in part by Amazon Studios (with the studio Roadside Attractions). It's a wild comedy that never loses sight of its tragic heart. And it's a glorious mess, tossing ideas all over the place, never quite sure any of them will land but luxuriating in their flight nonetheless.
But above all else, it's a year-end gift from the always-controversial director to the think-piece industrial complex. During a time when police brutality is the subject of near-endless discussion, it begins as a meditation on black-on-black crime — a topic that's recently become a much-vaunted right-wing talking point. (See: Donald Trump.)
However, it also suggests the military is ruled by the Confederacy, and its most searing speech about the roots of the black struggle in America is delivered by John Cusack, a white man, never mind that he's playing a riff on a real person. It seems designed at all times to push buttons — but in a good way. It's a necessary corrective to the idea that a work of art is only as good as its politics, and it even doubles as an argument that a movie can be "stagey" and still be good.
Yet Chi-Raq, even in its chaos, is raw and bleeding and often hilarious. It's the best movie Lee has made in ages, possibly since 2002's 25th Hour (which is still the best post-9/11 movie), and it demands that you pay attention at all times, whether you agree with it or not.
Here are five filmmaking techniques Lee uses in Chi-Raq that help make the movie so successful.
1) Lee films the movie in a presentational style, like a stage play
Lee has always been one of cinema's most theatrical directors, with a fondness for characters speaking directly to the camera and moving in overtly stagey ways. He even recorded the great Broadway musical Passing Strange in documentary form for posterity.
And Chi-Raq gives him more room to play than usual. Based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Chi-Raq concerns itself with the women of Chicago's South Side enacting a sex strike until the men stop wantonly killing each other. (The film's opening graphics point out that more Americans have been murdered in Chicago than have died in active combat situations since the Afghanistan War began.) The plot is hatched by a modern-day version of Lysistrata herself, played by up-and-coming star Teyonah Parris.
It's a ridiculous premise. Hell, it was ridiculous when Aristophanes cooked it up. And Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott keep layering on the conceits. Characters speak in rhyming couplets. Samuel L. Jackson plays a kind of Greek chorus figure. There are actual musical numbers. I was concerned that so many different elements could eventually become top-heavy and topple the whole film.
But Lee keeps things moving by filming the movie largely in a presentational style, meaning the actors always keep at least one side of themselves turned toward the audience, as if they were performing on stage. Many times they talk directly into the camera, approximating how a monologue might work during a play. And on some occasions, their movements are precisely coordinated and choreographed.
This gives Lee's story a sense of remove, which allows him to push things into more and more fantastical places. He's telling a story that's rooted in a very real tragedy, but one that is solved via patently unbelievable means. That's where the best satire can flourish, and Lee is always reminding you, with a wink, that what happens in Chi-Raq isn't real.
2) Except when he wants to, he can get very, very real
Chi-Raq's centerpiece is the funeral of a young girl who was killed by a stray bullet during an outburst of gang violence. The sequence goes on and on, first showing a musical performance, then the sermon at the funeral, and it doesn't give the audience an option to look away. It's deeply impassioned, incredibly raw, and always powerful. And even though a church service is inherently theatrical (in that it has a "performer" who speaks directly to an audience), Lee utilizes as many film techniques as possible to make this moment work, from smash cuts to close-ups to oblique camera angles.
Lee is using the audience's comfort and complacency with Chi-Raq's theatrical style to hit viewers with a right hook. As Cusack's character (based on real-life Chicago priest Father Michael Pfleger) gets deeper and deeper into his sermon in remembrance of this little girl who's died, it almost feels as if Lee, a director who loves to make a political point, is rubbing his hands with glee, saying, "You want to talk about black-on-black violence? Okay. Let's talk about it."
Lee builds his case gradually but devastatingly, until he's implicated the United States' lack of gun control laws, its lack of legislative care for historically black neighborhoods, and the legacy of white supremacy in the country for the death of this one little girl. Yes, the sequence (and the first half of the film) argues, it's true that this girl might have died because of an altercation between black men, but the people who put guns in those men's hands and the people who created the grueling system of poverty those men grew up in are just as much to blame. The whole film pivots at that point to an examination of wider societal problems.
3) The film's use of color is stunning
The two gangs at the center of Chi-Raq's gang war are the Spartans and Trojans, whose colors are purple and orange, respectively. Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have made these two colors the film's main palette, using them as accents even in otherwise sedate scenes.
For instance, when the film enters the two gangs' hideouts while following Spartan leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) or Trojan leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), Libatique bathes the scenes in either a purple dusk or an orange glow. However, he never overuses these colors, instead making sure they're just present, not overwhelming the action.
Similarly, the film's sets and costumes incorporate purple and orange to bring little bursts of color to almost every scene, until Lysistrata launches her plan and her army slowly dresses in monochromes, a new force clad in black and white, bringing their own kind of meaning to the universe.
4) The film is both playful and deadly serious, unapologetically mashing up disparate tones
Any time Lee has the chance to toy with viewers' expectations, he will. When Jackson addresses the audience near the start of the film, the raucous crowd gathered for a hip-hop show behind him freezes in mid-cheer. Later, Jackson seems to arrive in a scene as if from nowhere and even apes the most famous moment from Patton, when the general in the title gives a major speech in front of a giant American flag. A goofy military plan to undo Lysistrata's scheme involves slow jams bombarded upon the women holed up in a National Guard facility, and everything comes down to a climactic sex-off. This is a very silly movie when it wants to be.
And yet it's fundamentally about one of the most serious domestic issues facing America today, and it never stops reminding you of that fact. Chi-Raq is constantly dropping in information about the situation in Chicago, never letting the audience off the hook for not knowing about the murders happening there.
Wild tonal mashups can sometimes cause a movie to fall apart, but Chi-Raq's somehow works. It's as if Lee were reversing the old "spoonful of sugar" idea; a solid spoonful of outrage helps the rest of the movie's fanciful and satirical medicines go down. By the time the film ends with the dead little girl's mother begging the other characters for justice, right after one of the movie's funniest sequences, everything feels very much of a piece. That's tough to do well.
5) It's not afraid to go straight-up infographic when it needs to
There are entire sequences in Chi-Raq that feel like USA Today infographics simply projected onto the screen with visual pizzazz. One of them opens the film, with several minutes of lyrics from a rap song (one of a handful written specifically for the film), playing out in red text against a black screen. While the effect isn't as visually dazzling as some of the others I mentioned above, it allows Lee to keep mixing things up.
Chi-Raq isn't without flaws, perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it's a film about women and one woman in particular, yet it removes her name from the title and replaces it with the nickname of her boyfriend. (Although, to be fair to the film, "Chi-Raq" is also a dismissive moniker for the city the film calls home.) And as the infographic aesthetic suggests, it's not afraid to shout when merely stating something might suffice, which can grow tiresome.
But deep down inside, Chi-Raq is something blistered and bruised and funny and angry. This isn't fodder for the think-piece industry (though, okay, it is also that); it's a wounded fictional op-ed all its own, a cry for somebody, somewhere, to do something about everything that's gone wrong.
Chi-Raq is now playing in limited release. It will soon be available on Amazon Prime.