Spike Lee’s uneven “Chi-Raq” still electrifies.
Chi-Raq is directed by Spike Lee, and written by Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee. It is based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. It stars Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, and John Cusack.
Spike Lee is pushing 60, but he still makes films like a young man. His latest, Chi-Raq feels vibrant and purposeful at every moment, whether or not every one of those moments “works.” The film opens with Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City.” The words “this is an emergency” flash on the screen, as do the rest of the lyrics. We hear the entire song, interspersed with the image of a map of the United States made entirely out of guns. This gives us a good idea of the film we’re in for: intense, overt, and more than a little graceless/on-the-nose. The sequence though is bold in its earnestness and makes you wonder if criticisms such as “on-the-nose” are sort of besides the point.
Chi-Raq, in case you didn’t gather, is a political film (it’s a Spike Lee movie after all). The object of its ire is sort of general, but the ire itself is undeniable. Lee condemns gang violence and the system that fosters it, citing a lack of gun control, racism, and a dearth of economic opportunity for the underprivileged as his primary sources of frustration. These points are made repeatedly in the film, primarily by mouthpieces played by Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and, improbably, John Cusack. It’s Cusack’s character (a preacher) who delivers the film’s centerpiece monologue: a eulogy at the funeral of a young girl killed by a stray bullet. The speech is lengthy, more-or-less beating us into submission, but by the end of it we’re transfixed. The odd-looking Cusack is actually full of charisma and power even as he makes himself hoarse. The urgency, earnestness, and passion of his delivery made it all come together. It is at such moments, when the film wears its heart on its sleeve, that Chi-Raq feels the most beautiful and alive.
The plot itself is more of a mixed bag. It is inspired by the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which concerns the titular character convincing other women to deny their husbands sex in order to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War. Chi-Raq takes the same basic plot but sets it in modern Chicago (referred to as Chi-Raq by many of the characters) in the world of gang warfare. Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) head up rival gangs at seemingly endless war. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), sick of the never-ending cycle of gang violence in which her boyfriend “Chi-Raq” (Nick Cannon) is involved decides to recruit women from both sides in her plan to withhold sex from their partners until the violence comes to an end. One issue that I take with this plot is that there doesn’t seem to be much purpose behind selecting this particular play. While I understand the appeal of modernizing a classic text in order to comment on contemporary issues, I don’t really understand why it was this text that was chosen. Spike Lee quite obviously cares more about the social issues his film concerns than he does about Lysistrata. Why did it have to be based on a play at all?
The film does feel very theatrical, what with some of the characters actually speaking in verse, and the occasionally fourth-wall-breaking appearances by Samuel L. Jackson serving as a narrator of sorts. Many of the performances have a broad, larger-than-life, playing-to-the-back row quality to them. The broadest moments are the ones that work the least. There is one particular comedic scene, involving the takeover of a military base, that is so broad and silly that it’s hard to take seriously.
That being said, Chi-Raq is a bold, purposeful document that has a lot to recommend it. The film is well-cast, featuring surprisingly strong work from Nick Cannon, numerous enjoyable cameos, and a strong lead in Teyonah Parris. The film’s sometimes odd mix of tones (the earnest and the silly, namely) will certainly alienate some, but those who embrace may well love it. As a singular experience, it is worth seeking out.
The film is now playing.