Chi-Raq (2015) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Running Time: 127 min.
Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Steve Harris, Michelle Mitchenor
Small role: Dave Chappelle
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Review published December 30, 2015
Spike Lee (Oldboy, Inside Man) directs and co-scripts this wildly ambitious updating of the ancient Greek comedy, "Lysistrata", by Aristophanes, to craft a power public service announcement stance against black-on-black gang violence in Chicago (which has a murder rate so high, the locals have given their town the slangy portmanteau used in the title). After listening to the lyrics of star Nick Cannon's title song, "Pray 4 My City", complete with lyrics on display, Lee powerfully starts his film with the sobering statistics that more American were murdered by guns from the years 2001 to 2015 in the city of Chicago than in either the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan during the same period. For that reason, Lee sees such murder capitals in the United States as 'war zones', with gangs fighting it out for drugs, revenge, or just straight-up street cred, while innocent bystanders, including children, are killed by stray bullets when they get caught in the crossfire.
Set in Chicago's South Side, there are two warring gangs who've been committing violent crimes against each other for years, the purple-clad Spartans and the Trojans, dressed in orange. Chi-Raq, aka Demetrius Dupree (Cannon, Bobby), is the head of the Spartans, and he's out to take down the eyepatch-sporting Trojan Cyclops (Snipes, Expendables 3) and all of his men before his own get taken down. However, in the gunfire between the two men, an eleven-year old girl is killed by one of their strays, and no one is brave enough to snitch against the person who did it. Fed up by the cycle of violence that leaves them all as potential victims, the women of the community, led by Chi-Raq's girlfriend Lysistrata (Parris, They Came Together), determine that they're going to go on a sex strike -- 'no peace, no p***y' -- until the men put down their weapons and work toward peace between them. News spreads like wildfire, making the so-called 'blue-balls movement' a worldwide event, as even women in the sex industry and gay men are refusing to put out until a peace treaty is struck.
Lee, retooling a Lysistrata-based script originally titled, "Gotta Give It Up", from filmmaker and film professor Kevin Wilmott (C.S.A. The Confederate States of America, Ninth Street), sets up the platform for a take-no-prisoners think piece on the subject of gang violence, from its root causes to the need to find a solution by everyone, especially those who are perpetrating it. This is the work of a passionate director, who employs a host of emotions on the subject, from fury, to disappointment, to mournful, to hopeful, but always seems to do so with an underlying sense of humor to temper the internal maelstrom of feelings going on in Spike Lee's mind on the matter. The first Amazon original movie to be released by Amazon Studios, pushing out the film into theaters before it settles in to their wildly popular streaming service, they've come out of the gate swinging with an attention-grabbing satire that, love it or loathe it, will spark a conversation to pour over the myriad of hot-button topics that Spike Lee isn't afraid of tossing out at us.
The story is elevated in tone by its adherence to the construct of Aristophanes play, including the use of a rhyme scheme for most of the dialogue (which Lee and Willmott assert was done by Aristophanes, but was actually an invention of a few who've tried to translate the original work). It takes some time to get into the sing-song style of the back-and-forth conversations, but, as with Shakespeare adaptations to the screen, once you get used to the cadence, you don't really notice it past the first few minutes. Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), playing a fictitious character named Dolmedes (no doubt a riff on Rudy Ray Moore's classic pimp character from the blaxpoitation era, Dolemite), gives us contextual interludes in between various scenes, acting in place of the traditional Greek chorus that appears in all of their plays.
Some other surprises are in store, including Chicago favorite-son John Cusack (Love & Mercy) playing Father Mike Corridan, a white priest who leads a predominantly black church in the neighborhood he grew up in (inspired by true-life Roman Catholic priest Michael Pfleger), pulling forth a throat-shredding, fire-and-brimstone sermon that indicts a host of sources to the problem of children dying in the street, from an uncaring government subservient to the NRA to community fear of gang-related retaliation. Cusack hasn't been as invested in a performance in many years, and probably is still hoarse from the perpetual shouting he must have done to muster such an impassioned oratory.
It's a work of high ambition, which means it's a hard film to hold together tonally, such that most of the major points of the movie are made within the first half hour, with the rest of this sprawling satire escalating the scope, if not the themes, in an uneven fashion. As such, some scenes overshoot their target, such as a curious one where Lysistrata enters the U.S. armory and ridicules an extreme right-wing loon with a lust for guns that suggests a sexual perversion. That the phone-sex and porn industry would also follow suit is not only farfetched, but given the preponderance of pornographic videos and images easily accessible on the internet, there's already enough material to last a partaker several lifetimes, even if no new material were to ever be made again. These are messy, illogical indulgences that don't always pay off, but given how on-target much of the rest of Lee's potent diatribe is, it's easy to overlook such contrivances for the sake of the overall indictment of the gun culture that's propagating, in Lee's words, a 'self-inflicted genocide'.
Chi-Raq represents Spike Lee's most inspired, socially aware work in many years, and should remind many viewers of his talent, which seems to work best when it is unharnessed of trying to make a conventional movie. A virtuoso blend of Renaissance painting and vulgar street graffiti, it's a satire at its core, but one with surprisingly honest moments of drama and heartbreak. Although it would be wonderful to live in a world that didn't infuse Spike Lee with such venom-laced anger, given that we probably will as long as he's alive, I'm just glad he has the medium of film to express his outrage, in order for that Greek chorus of viewers to grow along with him with a shout of "Amen!"
©2015 Vince Leo