Spike Lee is an accomplished and provocative filmmaker. Nearly all of his films, usually overtly, have at least an element in them that deals with race, and in many of them, some of his most acclaimed work, it is the focus. For better or worse, race is the prism through which he sees the world. Given how contentious the issue of race has become in this country in recent years with a string of police incidents resulting in the high-profile deaths of young black men in this country and the protests that have followed them, and the overall crime statistics in this country, it seemed like only a matter of time before Spike tried his hand at making a film that addressed these issues. The result is Chi-Raq, a modern-day, Chicago-set retelling of the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes.
Chicago is a city that has extremely high crime rates. In recent years, people have taken to likening it to a war zone, like Iraq, hence the term “Chi-raq.” This war zone of a city is the setting for the story of gang violence ripping apart the neighborhood, a story that is introduced to us by Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), our omniscient narrator. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is the girlfriend of up-and-coming rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), who is also a major member of the local Spartans gang, that is at war with the rival Trojans and their leader, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). After two violent close calls, one at a concert where Chi-Raq was performing and one at their home, Lysistrata moves in with her older neighbor, Miss Helen, who tells her that she needs to do something to prevent the damage that is being done in their neighborhood. That morning, the child of a woman, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), was hit and killed by a stray bullet between the gangs, yet no one is willing to come forward with any information, despite a $5000 reward for information being offered by the local church and Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack). Sparked by this, Lysistrata convenes a meeting of women whose husbands, boyfriends, and lovers are in these rival gangs and convinces them all to withhold sex from their men until they decide to lay down their guns and make peace. The movement quickly grows and soon it sparks a standoff between the women, the men, and the local and city authorities.
The film has quite a few good thing going for it. Spike and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, have done an impressive job in adapting this classical Greek comedy to tell a modern, timely story. The Peloponnesian War, a war between two countries is transposed onto a gang war. Most impressively, most of the film’s dialogue is delivered in a rhyming, lyrical manner, which is no easy task (easier for some in this movie than others). It’s the kind of thing you see in a lot of modernized adaptations of Shakespeare, but here it works because of the culture and the ties to hip-hop which makes it much more effective.
There are a lot of cultural and national critiques and observations that Lee makes, some of them I don’t agree with, but plenty of them I do, particularly as it relates to the unnecessary loss of life and the unintended consequences of this senseless violence. When two characters who were involved in the shootout in the club at the beginning of the film return to stand on each side of Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes and share the aftermath of their violence, it really hits home.
There are also a lot of very good performances. Parris, as the lead, is revelatory. She is compelling and at times mesmerizing as Lysistrata, a woman who is in full command of her sexuality. She comes to realize that in these crazy circumstances, the only thing she can control to make a difference is her own body and choosing to withhold sex from Chi-Raq. Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett and Harry Lennix, who portrays someone who works for the mayor (D.B. Sweeney), are very good in supporting roles as well. The biggest surprise, though, is Nick Cannon, who it turns out can actually act. He gives a very good performance here, with almost every scene feeling true to the character. When the end arrives, the fate of his character resonates because, among other things, his performance leading up to it was convincing.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of flaws that prevent this film from being a later-period masterpiece from Spike. Some of it is related to the acting, particularly from Cusack, Snipes, and Sweeney, who just aren’t very good. Cusack, flits in and out of the suburban Chicago accent he is going for when he is speaking. It’s noticeable when he’s making conversation, but it’s downright jarring when he is given a long eulogy message over Irene’s child. That scene also felt incredibly awkward, what was supposed to be a funeral was made into a demonstrative sermon on the plight of the community. It just didn’t work for me.
Like that eulogy, there are a lot of odd and absurd flourishes and indulgences that the film slips into. Some sections of the film felt like an extended music video. While I said earlier that some of the critiques and observations that Lee makes that are very insightful, there’s also a handful of things that I found troublesome because they were put in there simply to provoke and nothing else; in particular, everything involving a character named General King Kong. Spike Lee has never been a director known for his subtlety, and here is no exception. Sometimes, wielding a hammer is highly effective, but sometimes a finer tool is needed. There’s also a strange disconnect between the mission of the women and who they are directing their protest/strike toward, and the lack of interaction/negotiation with their men. Rather, after seizing the local armory in an unarmed manner, it turns into a police standoff while Chi-raq, Cyclops, and their gang members remain on the fringe of the story doing their own thing and just sulking. All of this serves to muddle the message a bit.
Chi-Raq is a film that I wanted to like. In light of the uproar over the lack of diversity in the main Oscar categories, it would have been nice to point to this film in particular and say there may be a point to all of this. But while there are a lot of good aspects to this film and it shows that Spike Lee is still a director who has important things to say in his films, it’s too uneven to say it belongs in the Oscar discussion. It feels like Spike had a lot to say, almost too much, and was never quite able to put it into a cohesive whole here. It’s compelling, controversial, and substantive in parts, but also feels like it could’ve used an editor. Even though I think it falls short, it’s ambitious. This is the kind of thing I want to see from a director. I’d rather see Spike Lee going for it and coming up short than doing a generic American adaptation of Oldboy.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars