LFF 2016: Spike Lee's latest joint is a bold and passionate hip-hop musical
In 2011 director Steve James and journalist Alex Kotlowitz set out to place a spotlight on the murder epidemic in the south side of Chicago with their film The Interrupters. They spent a year following around members of activist group CeaseFire, who intervene in gang violence – and who likened the senseless slayings to a contagion. That sobering documentary opened with the information that over the last few years as many people have died from gunfire in Chicago as American soldiers have in Afghanistan and Iraq. Spike Lee sparks his latest joint with similarly depressing figures but has instead chosen to envision peace as infectious in a bold and passionate hip-hop musical and update of Greek play Lysistrata, set in the windy city.
Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) lights up the screen with her performance as Lysistrata, a woman who formulates a plan to end gang wars by persuading her female cohorts to withhold sex from their boyfriends and husbands. Samuel L Jackson brings the noise, parading around in sharp suits as one-man chorus and narrator Dolmedes, and Angela Bassett injects real pathos as Miss Helen, a woman at her wits end, who is sick to death of all the bloodshed. Lee's contempt and frustration at wilful ignorance and political corruption explodes through his characters.
Swathes of purple light and exquisite synchronised dancing dazzle in a powerful concert scene that begins joyfully and ends in a shooting. That dark pulsing energy is evoked at numerous times throughout Lee's film but he also sways through many different emotions, such as anger and overwhelming sadness. These tonal shifts are not necessarily eased into with enough grace and fluidity, yet Lee always manages to bring it back with vibrant imagery and slick rhymes that are both poetic and rousing. Packed full of heady ideas, this loud and proud proclamation is a vigorous and provocative piece of work.
Screened as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 2 Dec.