Spike Lee returns with his best, most crazily inventive and impactful film for at least a decade. Chi-Raq adapts Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – in which the women withhold sex in order to stop their men waging war – and transposes it to the gang warfare of Englewood, Chicago.
Like a latter-day West Side Story, it’s a heavily stylised approach, in which all the characters talk verse so the cumulative effect creates a giant rap musical, centring on the rivalry between gangs the Trojans and the Spartans.
When a little girl is shot by a stray bullet from a drive-by, Lysistrata declares her No Peace, No Pussy mantra and the women-folk shut up shop, despite the menfolks’ clamour for action: “Do your duty, drop that booty.”
Sexily, fiercely, brightly played by Teyonah Parris, Lysistrata takes the fight and leads the resistance. It’s one of the performances of the year, no doubt. The film is funny, confrontational and clearly deliberately provocative, both to blacks and whites.
John Cusack gives a blistering cameo as an Irish priest hollering about guns and killings; Angela Bassett brings it as an imperious sista who’s got a handle on black politics. There are dance numbers to the Chi-Lites’ Oh Girl (played as a slow jam to tempt the ladies into sex) and big comic moments of satire as well as powerful sequences in politics and churches.
This has the energy and anger of the best Spike, from She Hate Me and Bamboozled, plus the invention that’s always been there, since Do The Right Thing and 25th Hour. I think it channels the best elements of all of those into something really impressive and unique, a film that manages to be colourful, playful, entertaining, serious, sexy and important.