STARRING: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson
It may not take much to make Spike Lee angry, but there's no denying he gives us his reasons and then some in "Chi-Raq," a sprawling, blistering state-of-the-union address that presents Chicago's South Side as a cesspool of black-on-black violence, gang warfare, gun worship and macho misogyny, ruled by unbreakable cycles of poverty and oppression. All that social outrage clearly demanded similarly outsized treatment, and Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have found a remarkably accommodating vessel in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," whose tale of an ancient Greek heroine leading an antiwar sex strike has been updated here as an alternately soulful and scalding, playful and deadly serious 21st-century oratorio. Blunt, didactic and stronger on conceptual audacity than on dramatic coherence, this is still the most vital, lived-in work in some time from a filmmaker who has never shied away from speaking his mind or irritating his ideological foes, as he seems destined to do again with this first feature to be released by Amazon Studios (co-distributing with Roadside Attractions).
Lee's movie has already drawn the ire of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with its title, whose juxtaposition of "Chicago" and "Iraq" is defended in a powerful musical overture, "Pray 4 My City" (performed by top-billed star Nick Cannon). The song is a grim ode to a major metropolis that has seen more Americans killed in the past 15 years than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.
Chi-Raq is also the rap alias of Demetrius Dupree (Cannon), who is the lover of the beautiful Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and also the leader of a purple-clad gang known as the Spartans; their sworn enemies are the orange-wearing Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch). The names may come straight from the Peloponnesian War, but the setting is present-day Englewood, Chicago, where tensions erupt in a shootout one night at a packed concert venue. But it's not until an 11-year-old girl, Patti, is felled by a stray bullet, to the devastation of her mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), that someone decides enough is enough.
Enter Lysistrata. Actually, don't enter Lysistrata, who decides the only way these men will lay down their firearms is if they stop getting
laid. Backed by a wise peace-activist neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata and her Spartan sisters reach across the gangland divide, persuading the women of Troy to join them in a campaign of abstinence: "I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction / in erection." That bawdy, rhyming style of dialogue pulses through much of Lee and Willmott's script, whose characters blend rap idiom and rhythmic cadences into a stylized, vulgarized poetry that gives the picture an infectious pulse even when the narrative machinery stalls.
The action periodically halts for the running commentary of Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus played, as he must be, by Samuel L. Jackson, his lips-macking wordplay as colorfully varied as his sherbet-hued three-piece suits. The other key orator here is Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, hoarse with conviction), who at one point unleashes a fiery harangue against the tyranny of the NRA, the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lack of government investment in impoverished neighborhoods, and an overriding culture of fear and apathy that stands in the way of meaningful change.
The man behind the sermon, of course, is really Lee, whose preferred dramatic method here is to cobble together a grab-bag of grievances and hurl them at the screen with sometimes witty, sometimes clumsy abandon. To watch "Chi-Raq" is to feel as if you've stumbled into a hip-hop concert, a spoken-word recital and a gospel-choir performance rolled into one, peppered with up-to-the-minute references to our never-ending national nightmare: not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings. But for all its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the movie focuses less on issues of white privilege and police brutality than on the dispiriting everyday reality of blacks killing blacks, a system of "self-inflicted genocide" that is the target of Lysistrata's blue-balls diplomacy.
While it cites the example of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, a modern-day Lysistrata who helped improve Muslim-Christian relations in war-torn Liberia, "Chi-Raq" isn't seriously proposing mass celibacy as a feasible solution to the problems of contemporary American society. But there are still potent, if obvious, insights here into how bloodlust relates to carnal lust, how guns function as phallic symbols, and how a culture of violent machismo engenders an exploitative attitude toward women.
Uneven as storytelling, scattershot as satire, and capped by an emotional climax that feels too rigged to resonate, Lee's latest joint is best appreciated as a vigorous and uninhibited work of social criticism, executed with the madly riffing instincts of a pop-cultural magpie. There are clear echoes of Lee's own filmography, and if "Chi-Raq" never summons the tension and immediacy of "Do the Right Thing," it can't help but recall "She's Gotta Have It" and "Girl 6" in the way it pivots, morally and dramatically, on the story of a woman's sexual independence.
Parris ("Dear White People") projects intelligence and charisma as the film's inspired voice of reason, even if there's a certain flatness to her moral determination. Cannon has rarely been more commanding on screen, a brooding alpha figure who provides a fleeting glimpse of the terrified, fatherless little boy within. And Hudson gives the film a raw, uncomfortable jolt by enacting a fictionalized version of her own family's violent Chicago tragedy. That sort of bold stroke is all too emblematic of "Chi-Raq": Even when the movie's choices veer onto misguided ground, its confrontational attitude strikes a nerve.
CREDITS: An Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release of an Amazon Studios presentation of a 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production, produced by Spike Lee. executive PRODUCERS, Jon Kilik, Kevin Willmott. DIRECTED by Spike Lee. SCREENPLAY, Kevin Willmott, Lee. CAMERA (COLOR. WIDESCREEN), Matthew Libatique; EDITORS, Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na; music, Terence Blanchard; PRODUCTION DESIGNER, Alex DiCerlando; art director, David Meyer; set DECORATOR, Cynthia Slagter; COSTUME DESIGNER, Ruth E. Carter; SOUND (DOLBY DIGITAL), David Obermeyer; SOUND DESIGNER/SUPERVISINGSOUND EDITOR, Philip Stockton; RE-RECORDING MIXER, Paul HSU; SPECIAL EFFECTS COORDINATOR, Don Parsons; VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR, Randy Balsmeyer; CHOREOGRAPHER, Maija Garcia; STUNT COORDINATOR, Jeff Ward; CASTING, Kim Coleman, reviewed at Rodeo screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 20, 2015. MPA A RATING: R. RUNNING TIME: 127 MIN. CAST: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson