So I saw Chi-Raq yesterday. I went to bed still thinking about it, woke up still thinking about it, and though I need to keep cranking on the new novel, I can see I’m not going to get much done until I exorcise these Chi-Raq thoughts.
First, let’s just get out of the way that the movie is extraordinary. On a variety of levels, but maybe most of all in the range of its tone. It moves repeatedly and effortlessly from satire, camp, and fourth-wall-breaking sequences, including some almost hallucinatory dance numbers, to gut-wrenching, cinema-vérité style human drama. I’ve never seen a movie that had me alternately laughing so much at its antics with language and imagery, then crying so hard at its tragedies. I think part of the reason it affected me so much is that the satire was making me drop my guard. And every time I went for the over-the-top head fake, Spike Lee launched an incredibly real shot right up the middle that landed like a blow.
So yeah, Samuel L. Jackson is a scenery-chewing joy as a one-man Greek chorus, and the poetry of the dialogue is exuberant, and David Patrick Kelly’s out-of-the-blue nod to Dr. Strangelove is crazy and hilarious…and then you watch a lone Jennifer Hudson sobbing while she tries to scrub her recently murdered daughter’s blood from the pavement; or listen to John Cusack’s tremendous centerpiece as a Chicago pastor whose oratory channels tragedy into outraged determination; or see Angela Basset’s face dissolve in grief and fury at an insurance salesman’s attempt to capitalize on Chicago’s murder demographics; or realize from the look in his eyes that Nick Cannon’s conscience is belatedly asserting itself…and you just go to pieces.
Not that the movie’s aim and impact should be so terribly surprising: it clearly and powerfully signals where it’s going right from the opening credits, via a giant blinking all-caps red message on a black screen: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. Yes, it is. And it’s mind-blowing that a society could treat tens of thousands of annual gun deaths as anything but.
Overall thoughts: the writing, especially the poetry, is incredibly inventive; the direction, from an initial tracking shot following an L train down to neighborhood street level and into a nightclub, is virtuoso; Teyonah Pariss’s performance is a jaw-dropping tour de force (and that smile...my God); the theme song, Pray 4 My City, is still in my head…but these already impressive pieces add up to something much larger than the sum of their parts. More than anything else, Chi-Raq is a political movie, a story about the human impact of gun violence, societal neglect, and fucked-up governmental priorities. Some people won’t approve of that. I wish there were more movies like it.