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“Chi-Raq”: the Academy missed a zinger

Messy but exhilarating, Spike Lee’s new film could have been an Oscar contender, had it been released the old-fashioned way

Nicholas Barber | February 19th 2016

If it weren’t for video-streaming companies, the row over the Oscars’ lack of diversity might never have happened. For one thing, Idris Elba’s chances of a Best Actor nomination were scuppered when his film, “Beasts of No Nation”, was bought by Netflix. The company put “Beasts” online at the same time as they put it in cinemas, so old-fashioned Academy voters (ie, most of them) may have regarded it as a TV movie. The other example is Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”, which was the first feature film to be produced by Amazon Studios. It was shown in a select few American cinemas for just three weeks before it went online, and so, like “Beasts of No Nation”, it didn’t get the publicity that any awards contender needs.

In Europe, “Chi-Raq” still hasn’t been released, but when I caught it at the Berlin Film Festival, it struck me as having definite Oscar potential. With the right distribution, Teyonah Parris (“Dear White People”) would have been in the frame for Best Actress, and Angela Bassett for Best Supporting Actress. It’s even possible that Lee himself could have been nominated. True, “Chi-Raq” is a messy collision of comedy, musical, verse drama and agitprop polemic, but it’s still exhilarating to see the 58-year-old veteran revelling in the medium’s possibilities with all the enthusiasm of a child playing with a brand new toy. 

Lee opens the film by playing an entire rap track, “Pray 4 My City”, and displaying all the lyrics on screen. No credits, no images, just lyrics. He then flashes up a map of the United States composed of guns, along with the statistic that, over the last decade, American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were outnumbered by murders in Chicago. 

When the film proper gets underway, Lee carries on doing the opposite of what you’re expecting. In the first scene, a crowd gathers for a rap concert, but the club-goers are suddenly freeze-framed, and a narrator (Samuel L. Jackson, pictured) in a yellow zoot suit and a pink trilby strolls into view to tell us – in rhyming couplets, no less – that the film is adapted from Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”. After that, a rapper (Nick Cannon) starts performing, but tweets keep popping up all over the screen, and the crowd keeps switching between spontaneous dancing and choreographed moves. And so it goes on. 

Lee plays around with the form with as much New Wave verve as Adam McKay does in his tricksy housing-crash docudrama, “The Big Short”. So how come McKay and “The Big Short” are both up for Oscars while Lee and “Chi-Raq” aren’t?

When the gig ends with a shooting, the rapper’s girlfriend, Lysistrata (Parris), decides that enough is enough. A young woman with “a mind like Einstein/And a truly luscious behind”, Lysistrata discusses the neighbourhood’s gang-violence problem with the fiercely intelligent Miss Helen (Bassett). Their solution: a sex strike. Until the area’s two gangs lay down their guns, their wives and girlfriends will keep their chastity belts fastened. Or, to quote the slogan chanted by Lysistrata and her friends, “No peace, no pussy.”

Lee has plenty of bawdy fun with this premise: the men are especially aggrieved when the local strippers and porn stars join the strike. But his mind is whirling too speedily to concentrate on one plot for long. Stuffing “Chi-Raq” to bursting point with different ideas and techniques, he jumps from the goofiest of comic set pieces to a long sermon from John Cusack’s gravel-voiced preacher. He jumps from a tearful confession of murder to gags about a momma’s boy called Oedipus and a one-armed gangster called Cyclops. He jumps from a montage of gentrified central Chicago, where shiny new skyscrapers seem a world away from Lysistrata’s neighbourhood, to close-ups of the characters making desperate pleas for change.

Maybe it’s not just Amazon’s fault that Lee and his cast weren’t nominated for any Oscars. And maybe it’s not down to institutional racism, either. It’s more likely that any film as raucous, undisciplined and political as “Chi-Raq” immediately counts itself out of awards contention. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast. Now we just need someone to release it in Europe.

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