Hell yeah, it’s good. It’s damn good. Spike Lee has always been a major talent, and despite some inconsistency the last decade or so, he still gets the job done occasionally. You didn’t realize that? You haven’t been paying attention. The heady days of “Do the Right Thing”, “Malcolm X”, and “4 Little Girls” may have passed (all got attention from Oscar), but “Inside Man” and “When the Levees Broke” received solid critical attention. And the underrated “School Daze”, “Summer of Sam”, and “Bamboozled” are aching for rediscovery. You’ve never watched “25th Hour”? Do. Is “Chi-Raq” a return to form? I find that assessment acceptable. It has a few issues–Spike’s overlength bugaboo for one–but it’s his sharpest theatrical feature in years.
Chi-Raq is a commonly used endonym referring to Chicago’s South Side, combining the name of the “Windy City” with that of war torn Iraq. “Chi-Raq” is a musical satire about that area, and its rap culture and gang violence. And Mr. Lee’s inspiration comes from the Classical Greek play Lysistrata, from Athenian playwright Aristophanes! Its main plot line involves women withholding sex from their men until they can resolve their conflict peacefully. It sets up some marvelous set pieces, and is “narrated” by frequent Spike Lee performer, Samuel L. Jackson. “Chi-Raq” also stars a solid Angela Bassett, Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, a strong John Cusack, and a wonderful Teyonah Parris..who was so impressive the previous year as CoCo in “Dear White People”.
Of course, Mr. Lee was one of the major catalysts behind the recent OscarsSoWhite campaign–and why not? A long time activist and examiner of the U.S. racial climate, he’s had a plethora of cogent things to say regarding the subject for decades. He’s a major talent and a whip smart guy. Irony of ironies–he actually won an honorary Academy Award this past season for his body of work. Does “Chi-Raq” occasionally get wayward and suffer from excess. Sure. Does Spike Lee still exhibit the tendency of being unaware to yell “cut!”. Ditto. But “Chi-Raq” is also daring, audacious, timely, and well-acted–so that overrides its smattering of flaws. Samuel L. Jackson is a fine, grounding presence as always. And Angela Bassett and Teyona Parris each have a stake in “why did Oscar ignore us”. “Chi-Raq” is powerful Spike.