Chi-Raq, Spike Lee's typically idiosyncratic response to the issue of inner-city gang violence, rewrites Aristophanes' Lysistrata in rapped verse for a predominantly African-American cast to deliver on the streets of latter-day Chicago. (The title reflects the statistical fact there were more gang-related deaths in that vicinity than there had been in the entire Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.) Lee's Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is a cartoonishly gorgeous sister - hair combed high and wide - who makes a decisive intervention in the clash between two local gangs, the Trojans and Spartans, which has claimed as many innocent victims as active combatants; her solution, as per the original text, is to organise a city-wide sex strike, thereby turning a kerbside grudge match into a full-blown gender war. As the chastity belt-wearing holdouts frame it: "No peace, no pussy". Lee is one of precious few filmmakers to have grown only more mischievous with age (cf. his pricelessly giggly response to seeing Green Book win Best Picture over his own BlacKkKlansman, in essence a movie about a real-life prank call that got out of hand). Part of the fun of Chi-Raq lies in imagining certain classical scholars succumbing to a conniption fit, or otherwise rolling in their grave.
Another part of the fun comes from watching Lee get to this premise, the liberties he continues to take with established film form. A prologue resembling a YouTube lyrics video sets the scene over an image of a U.S. composed of guns; we get Samuel L. Jackson as a peacocking narrator, breaking the fourth wall while sipping from a pimp cup in a barber's chair; and John Cusack, that most concerned of Chicagoans, as a preacher shouting himself hoarse in the delivery of the editorial word. Chi-Raq turns on this latter characterisation: opinion has been split on whether the movie is hectoring (to use another classical reference point) or simply going the extra mile to get its message across - making an acknowledgement, amid all its larkiness, that some things matter. Chi-Raq is not as urgent about taking this stance as was, say, the final act of Klansman - it was made under the Obama administration, when the news cycle still afforded our creatives time to think - but there is a concerted effort here to set out not just the problems of a neighbourhood, as Lee so brilliantly did in Do the Right Thing (reissued to UK cinemas this week on the occasion of its 30th anniversary), but a representative American metropolis as blighted as the Baltimore of David Simon's The Wire. If it's not the absence of father figures (spirited away either to prison, or to fight the wars to which the title alludes), it's the lack of investment; if it's not the need for excitement that leads young brothers to take up arms, it's the profiteering of those insurance companies making money off the deaths of fallen warriors.
Simon, of course, had the luxury of several seasons to set out his vision and finesse his rhetoric. Chi-Raq, by comparison, can seem crude, as cartoonish as its heroine: it hits an especially rough patch in its second act, as everybody including the viewer realises two hours is a long time to fill without anyone seeing any action. Lee drafts in David Patrick Kelly to play an armoury general in Confederate underpants who winds up straddling a Civil War cannon nicknamed Whistlin' Dick; having made this sniggering, schoolboyish point, he makes it again a few decibels louder via D.B. Sweeney as a lawmaker who enjoys dressing as Imhotep in the bedroom. It's not that there aren't sequences that are powerful, as when Lee reroutes his performers to attend an actual march for Chicago's fallen. Funny, too: Dave Chappelle drops by for one scene as an anguished stripjoint owner who realises the strike means he'll have to put some less desirable blokes on the pole, and I liked the authorities' attempt to break the stand-off by blasting slow jams intended to put Lysistrata's withholding girls in a suggestible froth. Still, Chi-Raq struggles to cohere and achieve that blunt-force power this director's best work has always had: it needs Jackson's narrator on screen to give it even the illusion of shape. Few other American filmmakers would have so rejected the pieties traditionally associated with the ghetto genre, and so enthusiastically embraced the rhymes, dance routines and climactic big bangs that take their place here - there's a weird kind of black privilege at play in Chi-Raq, which is why it's often wayward, but never dull. Yet I can understand why some accused Lee of screwing around while the world burned. The following year brought President Trump, and with it the Empire Strikes Back return of white nativism muttered about in jokey dispatches here. As BlacKkKlansman better realised, this would be no laughing matter whatsoever.
Chi-Raq is available to stream via Amazon Prime.