The historical drama BlacKkKlansman, about an African American police officer’s efforts to infiltrate a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, is being hailed as its director’s best movie in years; Google Search the film’s title + “return to form” and you’ll find a whole bunch of critics using the latter phrase to contextualize the supposedly welcome surprise of an expertly rolled Spike Lee joint. “It’s been a while, since around the mid-to-late-1990s, that Lee’s work was felt to be in the vanguard of serious and widely seen films about race issues in the U.S.,” writes Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, effectively consigning two decades of varied and vital work to the margins on the grounds of commercial failure. It’s as though the digicam IED Bamboozled or the excellent HBO documentaries When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise were conceived as plausible blockbusters—or as though an artistic sensibility predicated on the carnage and catharsis of confrontation was destined for consensus.
The desire for Lee’s work to reach a big audience is understandable, as he’s one of the only true brand-name American filmmakers still working. If you were making a list of directors that multiple generations of moviegoers could identify as easily via a headshot as a highlight reel, Lee would be on the list with fellow Knicks fan Woody Allen (with whom he’s friendly); fellow jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood (with whom he is not); and fellow Samuel L. Jackson BFF Quentin Tarantino (with whom he has engaged in one of the most openly antagonistic auteur feuds of all time, which he is winning both on points and by virtue of just not being Quentin Tarantino).
Aside from the obvious skin-deep difference, what separates Lee from the aforementioned trio—as well as from the usual suspects of Spielberg, Scorsese, and the Coens—is that he’s distinctive without necessarily being repetitive. Although Lee retains a considerably higher degree of mainstream celebrity than fellow ’80s-indie figureheads Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant, his idiosyncratic and at times inscrutable output is more in sync with their restless artistic rhythms. In the past decade alone, he’s attempted a large-scale World War II drama (Miracle at St. Anna); a microbudget community portrait (Red Hook Summer); a pair of ambitious genre remakes (Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which reworked Bill Gunn’s astonishing vampire allegory Ganja & Hess); and an adaptation of a classical Greek comedy written and performed almost entirely in rhymed, metered dialogue (Chi-Raq).
I still haven’t seen BlacKkKlansman, so I’m not sure if 2015’s Chi-Raq is the best of Lee’s late movies, but it’s probably the most Lee: the Spikiest, starting with its array of sly self-citations. There’s a difference between the idea of a “return to form”—which is an assessment made by critics—and an artist actively calling back to their own work. There has been an official Spike Lee Cinematic Universe since the late 1980s, when the director reprised his performance as Mars Blackmon—the fast-talking Brooklynite introduced in his debut, She’s Gotta Have It—in a series of commercials for Air Jordans, playfully leveraging the character’s marginal, underdog appeal against MJ’s iconicity (and giving himself the kind of nationally televised face time that, say, Martin Scorsese never dreamed of until he hooked up with Amex). Less famously—but no less interestingly—Lee used the mock-documentary interludes in Red Hook Summer to resurrect Do the Right Thing’s Mookie, another alter ego whose presence serves as a certificate of authorial authenticity.
Chi-Raq’s continuity with Do the Right Thing is less literal but no less powerful. For starters, it’s there in the way that Lee uses a hip-hop track as an overture—summing up the themes and motifs of the work before introducing any characters or plot complications. Obviously, Do the Right Thing’s deployment of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”—a song conceived at Lee’s request before being featured a year later on Fear of a Black Planet—behind stylized, color-coded images of a bobbing-and-weaving, pre-Fly-Girls Rosie Perez ranks among the all-time best white-hot cold opens (and inspired the greatest homage ever on Childrens Hospital). Chi-Raq’s use of star Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” against an agit-prop montage of statistics and song lyrics can’t compete with its predecessor’s exhilarating sound-image assault, but it shows that Lee’s theatricality, which dates back earlier than Do the Right Thing to the endearing musical numbers in School Daze, is still intact.
The great showman in Chi-Raq is Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes, a flamboyantly costumed orator who splits the difference between being a stand-in for Lee, a throwback to the actor’s DJ character from Do the Right Thing (“Wake up!” he shouts at one point with the same crack-of-dawn cadence), and a literal Greek chorus in line with the film’s Aristophanean inspiration. Lee has always loved direct address—which shows up in She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, and 25th Hour (via Edward Norton’s spectacularly racist to-camera rant)—and leans into it here both as storytelling technique and loving allusion: “We retain his verse,” says Jackson of the Greek playwright (himself a political agitator, who dared to satirize the ruling class), “to show love for the universe.”
It is Dolmedes who lays out the story’s central conflict between two rival Chicago gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, whose monikers nod vigorously to Mediterranean mythology. Chi-Raq’s ensemble setup, which devotes roughly equal amounts of screen time to both clans, is also vintage Lee. The Spartans are led by Cannon’s up-and-coming rapper Demetrius, who gives the film its title via his stage name, and the Trojans are led by Wesley Snipes’s “Cyclops” (a nice nod to the Odyssey) as his old-head foil. With the notable exception of Malcolm X, Lee is better at cross-sections than character studies, catching interesting behaviors and tensions on the fly. While Chi-Raq necessarily took him outside of his New York City comfort zone (and into the bad books of then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as Chance the Rapper), the film is energized by the same interests in the drama and dichotomy of group dynamics as Do the Right Thing. Both films envision a city that’s reached its boiling point.
In Do the Right Thing, the clash of individual agendas and prejudices results in an act of authoritarian violence that leads, in turn, to mob violence. Chi-Raq progresses in the other direction, with a scenario that demands the repression of violent impulses in the service of a socially righteous mind-set. The script’s mining of the 2,500-year-old play Lysistrata—about the combined efforts of women on both sides of the brutal, interminable Peloponnesian War to withhold sex until the male-run military establishments declare a truce—tweaks the material in the direction of comedy. As the female characters (led by Teyonah Parris as Aristophanes’s play’s eponymous heroine) double down on their rallying cry of “no pussy, no peace,” the orange-clad Trojan and purple-covered Spartan warriors suffer a mutual attack of blue balls: an alternate title could have been They’ve Gotta Have It.
Lee has long been accused of being a bad gender politician, and not everybody appreciated Chi-Raq’s putative portrait of female power, which proposes (again, with a big assist from a long-dead Greek) that the promise of life force bound up in sex offers the most concise solution to a fatal cycle of gang violence and the modern death cult of the NRA (who get theirs in the form of an extended monologue by John Cusack as a priest eulogizing an accidentally slain girl). That said, Parris’s verbally deadpan, physically steady performance (she stands and walks like a person determined to hold her ground) yields Lee’s most memorable characterization since Denzel Washington’s sardonic hostage negotiator in Inside Man, and the film overall shows wit and invention at nearly every turn, getting great comic mileage out of the poetic dialogue and climaxing in a genuinely hilarious sequence where government officials try to weaken the strikers’ resolve by pumping the Chi-Lites’ simmering “Oh Girl” into their barracks. (I’d like to think that this is Lee reclaiming the Chi-Lites track from its fleeting jukebox cameo in QT’s Death Proof, but probably not.)
Despite its serious subject matter—and arguably at times in counterproductive counterpoint to the serious issues it’s trying to allude to—everything about Chi-Raq exudes exuberance: the movement of the camera; the West Side Story–style choreography of the two rival factions; the delight the actors display in tearing into their dialogue. The film’s polarizing reception, which saw major critics split down the middle, probably had something to do with Lee sticking his nose into the loaded issue of gun violence in Chicago as well as the movie’s hyperbolically theatrical style, but that mix of thorny politics and radical (by way of old-fashioned) aesthetics is precisely what makes him valuable whether or not he ever “returns to form.” If anything, Chi-Raq show that the term may be oxymoronic when dealing with a filmmaker as restless and inventive as Spike Lee: even when he’s reaching back to his own greatest hits (and as far back as ancient Greece), he feels duty-bound to try something new.