You better believe black lives matter in Spike Lee's Chi-raq. Arriving after a particularly tumultuous year for black-white relations and hitting home video just after the culture erupted over #OscarsSoWhite, Chi-raq remains the right film at the right time, Lee’s most creatively fertile and socially immediate narrative feature in years. A grabber from its opening sequence, a lyric video for Nick Cannon’s gut-punching "Pray 4 My City" (complete with a U.S.-map graphic made up of assault weapons), Lee’s film reformats Aristophanes’ classical comedy Lysistrata—of women withholding sex to force a truce—as a hopeful wail for our modern urban war zones.
After establishing political themes about Chicago being a war zone to beat Iraq (with the stats to back up the title) and drawing the line between the Spartan gang and the Trojan gang, Lee busts out Samuel L. Jackson (who previously appeared for Lee in Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Oldboy) as lively narrator Dolmedes, who further explains the lay of the land and Lee's creative approach. Lee and co-scripter Kevin Willmott audaciously employ verse dialogue, punching the rhythms in the music of rapper/gangster Demetrius "Chi-raq" Dupree (Nick Cannon) and underplaying them in the rhythms of daily life on the South Side of Chicago. Once a drive-by shooting claims the daughter of local woman Irene (Jennifer Hudson), Chi-raq's girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) realizes she has had it with the gunshots and the firebombs, so she walks away and soon hatches a plan with her "sisters": to withhold sex until a truce is declared. Lee also makes note for us how this perhaps fictional gambit from 2,426 years ago has repeatedly been tried in reality (as in Liberia with Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee).
Casting is key, starting with the fabulous Parris (Dear White People), a surprisingly effective Cannon, there-and-back-again Wesley Snipes pointedly cast as redeemable Trojan gangleader Cyclops, John Cusack as a fire-breathing liberal preacher who delivers a searing sociopolitical sermon, Angela Bassett as a sage voice of the older generation, and even Dave Chappelle for a burst of comic relief as a frustrated strip-club proprietor. Chi-raq may be all over the Chicago map, but this challenge to mayor Rahm Emanuel has enough intellectual muscularity and precocious performance instinct for five movies, whether in tangy verse dialogue, lecture form (that wallop of a sermon), potent melodrama, or Kubrickian comedy of war and American imperialism. Lee takes on the police state, with its urban tanks under the control of white privilege, but he reserves his greatest ire for the black-on-black violence that makes too many American cities hot zones of slow self-genocide.
When Lee cooks up a stew this heady, one best recognize. As in his heyday of pictures like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever (and, lest we forget, the criminally neglected Bamboozled), Lee takes his creative freedom as the first feature filmmaker for Amazon Studios and applies it to painting an expressive portrait of place, steeped in African-American history and culture, universal human comedy-drama, and the current social issues that unite in solidarity and divide in urban warfare an all-too-somnambulant American public. What results combines a boisterous take-no-prisoners satire and a poignant elegy for fallen African-Americans of yesterday, today and tomorrow, twinning a chant of “No Peace! No Piece!” with Lee’s career-long motto “Wake Up!”
Lionsgate sends Chi-raq home in a Blu-ray + Digital HD special edition that excels in its A/V presentation and includes noteworthy deleted scenes. The outstanding picture quality renders true color and sharp detail for a faithful presentation: contrast proves well-calibrated and the image is free of any noticeable compression artifacts. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a nice job of prioritizing dialogue and delivering the music in warm high fidelity. The soundscape isn't always strongly immersive, but LFE certainly roars to life when cars gun engines or gunshots crack on the track.
The extras provide some welcome video-based bonuses, but the lack of a Lee commentary or extensive interview (hit YouTube for those) is a missed opportunity. Instead we get the brief promo-style "The Making of Chi-Raq" (4:11, HD) with talking-head clips of Lee and actors Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Anya Engel-Adams, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack, and Angela Bassett. More important is an interesting, character-expanding selection of thirteen "Deleted Scenes" (16:46, HD) and four "Extended Scenes" (24:07, HD). Rounding out the disc is a music video for “We Gotta Do Better” by Kevon Carter.
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