There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Chi-Raq, an offbeat adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, directed by Spike Lee and scripted by Kevin Willmott. Lysistrata is a play about women who collectively withhold sex from their male partners to pressure them into abandoning their war-making ways. This modernized version is set in a Chicago ravaged by gang violence. Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, who coaxes her friends to unite with her in abstinence until their lovers put down their guns. Though the movie is examining a very real social ill — and pulling no punches in its critiques of ineffectual politicians and macho idiocy — Chi-Raq’s style is very theatrical, with rhyming dialogue and frequent musical numbers performed by stars like Nick Cannon and Jennifer Hudson.
Why watch now?
Because Lee and Wilmott’s BlacKkKlansman opens in limited release this weekend.
Based on the autobiography of Colorado cop Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, a former NFL player and the son of Denzel Washington), BlacKkKlansman is set in the 1970s when Stallworth tried to expose local Ku Klux Klan activity by going undercover. As a black man, Stallworth was unable to infiltrate the Klan in person, so he relied on a still-anonymous partner to be his front at KKK meetings while he stayed in the office and spoke to contacts by phone. In the film version, that partner is white cop Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver as a Jewish man who isn’t particularly invested in his ethnic or religious identity until he has to constantly deny it to anti-Semitic bigots. Eventually, the policemen draw close to an openly racist would-be politician named David Duke (Topher Grace). Since its debut at the 2018 Cannes film festival in May, BlacKkKlansman has been hailed as the most slickly entertaining Spike Lee movie since the 2006 hit Inside Man. It’s simultaneously funny, tense, and frighteningly relevant in its connections to today’s headlines.
Get Out director Jordan Peele is one of the film’s producers, and Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz worked on the script. But when Lee joined the project, he brought Willmott on board to help add some of his own sensibility. Willmott is a veteran indie writer-director whose best-known work is the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a witty, bold alternate history that imagines the myriad ways the nation would and wouldn’t have changed if the South had won the Civil War. Far from a lark, C.S.A. considers how societies use the complacent comforts of “tradition” as an excuse to keep perpetrating abhorrent cultural crimes.
Lee and Willmott’s only previous collaboration was on Chi-Raq, but it’s clear the two are simpatico, judging by their previous work. C.S.A., in particular, has a lot of Lee’s playfulness, as well as his willingness to provoke and even irritate rather than make things easier for an audience. Chi-Raq does this, too, by turning an ongoing real-life tragedy into a comedy. Any potential levity is undercut by the film’s unnaturally poetic dialogue and its seething anger at anyone who has the power to reduce Chicago’s gun violence but refuses to act because it’s politically inconvenient. The movie’s point is ultimately pretty blunt, but its method of delivery is complex and challenging.
Who it’s for
Adventurous viewers who appreciate experimental, heavily political pop art.
Even before Chi-Raq was released in 2015, it generated controversy for its title (a seemingly glib, jokey comparison of a major American city to a bombed-out war zone) and for what some perceived as an unserious, possibly sexist response to an actual urban crisis. Though Parris is fantastic in the lead role, Lee isn’t always great about adding depth and subtlety to his female characters, especially when one of the main topics is sex. Often, Lee’s idea of progressive womanhood is any gal who’s as openly horny as a dude. Add in the unusual conceit of this picture, with its spontaneous songs and incessant rhymes, and it’s easy to see why Chi-Raq drew mixed reviews.
But while it’s not a masterpiece like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, or 25th Hour, Chi-Raq isn’t as “difficult” as its reputation. The songs are often lovely, and the performances are spirited and engaging from a powerhouse cast that includes Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Harry Lennix, and Dave Chappelle. As Lee and Willmott have done throughout their careers, here they dive headlong, almost recklessly, into big questions about race relations, gender roles, and systemic oppression of the underclass. Unlike many other filmmakers, they don’t limit themselves to just the basic set of aesthetic tools, no matter how serious their subject. Music, theater, sketch comedy, fashion… Chi-Raq is willing to try anything and everything.
Where to see it
Amazon Prime Video. Lee’s TV adaptation of his movie She’s Gotta Have It is on Netflix. Overall, he seems to be having a more fruitful business relationship with Amazon, which distributed his recent film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over and currently has his Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls and his experimental vampire film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus available for subscribers to stream.