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Spike Lee's upcoming gun violence satire Chiraq is quickly becoming the celebrity auteur's most buzzed-about project in nearly a decade. First, there was that totally tantalizing Kanye West casting development, followed by his subsequent drop-out, then the fiery backlash to the title from disgruntled Chicagoans, and now, the experimental Amazon deal. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon's new Netflix-baiting movie wing Amazon Original Movies, Chiraq will become the first official original movie to nab a theatrical release from the six-month-old distribution division.
After the heel-cooling receptions afforded to 2008's stilted WWII epic Miracle at St. Anna, 2012's roots-returning Red Hook Summer, and this winter's Kickstarter-funded black horror homage Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, not to mention the almost universally repellent response to that wholly unnecessary 2013 Oldboy remake, Lee remains the famously messy yet iconoclastically innovative director he's always been, even if critical and commercial success have rather embarrassingly eluded him since 2006's Inside Man. Lee is still the rare African-American director who can cross indie and mainstream lines at his preference, see-saw between mediums, and have his pick of seemingly any joint he fancies. But, frankly, he could use a hit.
A loose updating of Aristophanes' ancient battle-of-the-sexes comedy Lysistrata set around Chicago's South Side, Chiraq could be exactly the sort of risky endeavor that revitalizes Lee's scattered reputation or — at least — gets audiences talking. The title alone suggests a film that's inherently provocative yet politically-attuned to continually troubling current events that should be reflected and analyzed in more of our art. The film also sports one of those rangy yet seemingly random casts (Angela Bassett and Common! Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Hudson! Dave Chappelle and Wesley Snipes! Uh, John Cusack and Jeremy Piven...?) that only Spike Lee can compile and he's found himself a totally appealing leading lady in the form of Teyonnah Paris, who's been contributing charismatic turns to all sorts of projects like the Sundance breakout Dear White People, the latter seasons of Mad Men, and Starz's Lebron James-shepherded Survivor's Remorse, and seems bound to breakout with the right starring role. Amazon clearly has faith in the project, which is getting the sort of tellingly late December release that always signals an Oscar play, even if the Academy have notoriously never been Lee's biggest supporters.
Either way, I'm rooting for Chiraq, which can hopefully lift Lee out of this muddled, midrange stasis that he appears to be trapped in as of late. It's the same blurry grey zone that Francis Ford Coppola found himself in during the post-Apocalypse portion of his career. Coppola barely works at all anymore, which is hopefully a fate that never befalls Lee, who remains a local visionary whose characteristically candid audaciousness was always bound to leave him misunderstood, if never so quietly under-the-radar. (I like my Spike Lee films many ways but "quiet" is rarely one of them.) I'm curious as to what Lee's bigger picture is, or if he even has one in mind. Aligning himself with an artistically-expansive company like Amazon, who can already count Jill Soloway, Woody Allen, and Whit Stillman among their tony TV ranks, is surely the best possible move Lee could've made within a rapidly-shifting landscape that forces one of our last truly famous filmmakers to resort to Kickstarter for a project that barely made a blip among critics and audiences. Lee has always been a director of risky ingenuity and stubborn if eclectic diffusiveness, which can occasionally give us She Hate Me, but which can also give us Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke. I hope Chiraq is a modern masterpiece that expands Lee's artistry and acclaim beyond the estimable merits of even these most staggeringly accomplished works. But honestly, I'd just love to start talking about him again.