Directed by Spike Lee.
2015. Rated R, 127 minutes.
Samuel L. Jackson
D. B. Sweeney
La La Anthony
David Patrick Kelly
Basing your film on a twenty-four hundred year old play that most people have never heard of is a risky proposition. It's even riskier to put it in a modern day setting and make it a musical. Even riskier than that is instead of singing, having all the characters rap most of their lines. This is exactly what director Spike Lee does with his latest joint. The play is Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes and first performed in the neighborhood of 400 BC. Now, as it was then, Lysistrata (Parris) is our heroine. Her drastic decision drives the plot. We'll get to that in a bit. In this case, the setting, and the character named for it, are more important to the story because it is the reason we have a movie at all. It is present day Chicago, Illinois,
The murder rate in Chicago exploded in the 1990s. It has been gradually declining over the last decade. The fact remains, however, that an inordinate number of the victims are young black men at the hands of the same. In keeping with a trend that's been happening around the U.S., cities with violent reputations have their names combined with that of a country or region known for war. For instance, here in North Carolina, the rough city of Fayetteville is also known as Fayette-Nam, a reference to The Vietnam War. Here, we have Chi-Raq. Spike Lee continues to show his affinity for allegorical names by also giving his male lead the same name. He's a rapper who has adopted the moniker as his own. All of this is pertinent information, not for our understanding of the film, but to the circumstances that made Lee deem it necessary to make the film in the first place.
The plot starts with Chi-Raq (Cannon), the man. Not only is he a rapper, but he is also leader of the Spartans, one of the two dominant street gangs in this version of The Windy City (another Chicago nickname, for the uninitiated). A shootout occurs at one of his shows to open the film, resulting in the death of a fellow Spartan. Later that night, Cyclops (Snipes), leader of the rival gang The Trojans., sets fire to Chi-Raq's home, which Chi survives. Chi's girlfriend Lysistrata, who is with him at the time, expresses how tired she is of the gangsta lifestyle and implores him to get out of it. When he refuses, she does the sensible thing and walks out. Like people in love often do, Lysistrata wants to get back with her man. However, she wants to be strong in her conviction. She gathers up a number of other girlfriends of gangstas and seeks the counsel of Ms. Worthy (Bassett). Ms. Worthy advises the ladies that the only way to stop the war being waged in their streets is to deny the men involved the one thing they most desire: sex. The women decide to unite under the mantra "No peace, no pussy," and off we go.
The idea that a group of roughly eight women, all in relationships, will completely forgo sex in service of the greater good sounds noble is a tough sell. That this snowballs into a city-wide sex strike, and isn't done there, is preposterous. To combat this, Lee makes his film as farcical and allegorical as possible. The mixture of the two lets us know that what's being said is serious, how it's being said is not. As if to clarify this, we get a ridiculous set piece, right about at the halfway mark, that seems to have been ripped from a different film, altogether. It zeroes in on the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag and is bound to throw the viewer for a loop. It's one of those scenes that feels like a moment of truth for those watching. You may check out right then and there, even if you keep watching. The alternative is buckling down and trying to figure out how in the world this fits in with the rest of what's happening. I chose the latter.
Before the film gets to that scene we have to deal with the other elephant in the room. That would be everyone speaking in verse. Earlier I said they were rapping, but that's not exactly true. It's more accurate to say they speak in couplets with occasional forays into spoken word performances and full-blown rap. We've become so ensconced in the idea that this style of dialogue is solely for traditionally and classically presented Shakespeare that it is jarring when it's applied to contemporary setting. Since this is the case even when it is a production of Shakespeare, such as Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet both come to mind, it's certainly going to be that way for something that is not Shakespeare. Even for the most prepared of us it will take a few minutes to get into the groove. Occasionally, we'll fall out of it and have to readjust. This happens because it's a bit choppy in execution due to the fact that how it comes across depends on the actor delivering it and how their particular lines are written. Angela Bassett, for instance, delivers most of her dialogue in a normal conversational manner making it hard to detect the rhyming words. However, she makes them more obvious during her bigger dramatic moments. As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris maintains a fairly natural deliver throughout. Nick Cannon mostly forgoes any pretenses of making it sound like regular speech and often sounds the most like a rapper.
Overall, the performances are pretty good, Cannon included. Despite his persona as the affable, non-threatening guy that has managed to inject himself into multiple corners of pop culture, he's pretty believable. Co-star Teyonah Parris fares a bit better while Angela Bassett outdoes them both, to no one's surprise. John Cusack is amazing as the local preacher and voice of reason. Samuel L. Jackson is our narrator, and is clearly having more fun than anyone else in the movie. He seems to be amusing himself with his extended Dolemite impersonation. Jennifer Hudson has a bit part though her subplot is often referenced. She also gives us the film's one true show-stopping moment when she gets to flex those powerful vocal chords. The amateurs Lee employed are a hit-or-miss bunch, but not too bad in sum. The one real disappointment is the odd, chirpy performance given by Wesley Snipes as the rival gang-leader. I know what he was going for, I think, it just didn't work.
Performances might be incidental to our enjoyment of this film, or lack thereof. It's really all about the mode of storytelling the director uses and how it comes across. It's so out of left field for Lee it's bound to be polarizing. It doesn't help that Lee himself is already a figure who inspires strong opinions by people for and against him. I entertained the notion that this divide along the lines of hip hop fandom: those who are vs. those who are not. Two of my own brothers, every bit as big into hip hop as I am, shot that theory down. They both saw it before me and hated it. Each one made sure to single out the fact that the whole movie rhymed. One specifically said "It was driving me crazy."
That got me to thinking about what it could be that some hated so much while others loved it. I arrived at the conclusion that it's not necessarily what Chi-Raq is, but what it isn't that has caused such a stir. Prior to release this was the most hyped Spike Lee Joint in quite some time. The cinematic political voice of a generation was tackling a problem he seemed almost uniquely qualified to address on film. People were expecting a Do the Right Thing for the new millennium. Not least of these people were Chicagoans, themselves. What they, and we, got was a film with lots to say, but with no recognizable portrayal of the city it purports to represent. Nor does it off any real insight into the issues it brings up, preferring to exist as a thinly veiled and none-too-subtle satire. These are both things Do the Right Thing did extremely well. That is clearly a New York movie dealing with New York issues. However, it also lets us know that these same issues are affecting people far and wide. Chi-Raq does the latter, but never establishes itself as something of Chicago. When you add in the verse and widespread abstinence being handled so amiably, it doesn't always appear to be of this universe.
I like the film for its uniqueness and Lee's overall skill as a filmmaker which is still flourishing after all these years. As usual he is in perfect lock-step with his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique. Libatique is the man who has shot most of Lee's work starting with 2006's Inside Man. He is also a frequent collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, shooting all of that director's work and earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Black Swan. He has done a few blockbusters, as well, including the first two Iron Man flicks, and last year's smash Straight Outta Compton. Libatique and Lee team up to comprise some gorgeous shots that fit right into the Lee canon. This includes another in the growing line of Lee's patented double-dolly shots.
There are also a number of poignant moments sprinkled throughout. Agree or disagree with what the film is saying, it's impossible to say it isn't thought provoking. The same goes for the premise as a whole. One party withholding sex as a means to an end has been used in individual relationships forever. It's intriguing to ponder what would happen with that strategy on a macro level. Conversely, I fully get why people hate it. It's all a bit much to take, and frankly, can be overwhelming. My own misgivings include the film's lack of focus. It tries to fit so much in that it often loses sight of its main plot. There is also a major plot hole involving one young lady who isn't down with the program. Her behavior goes unexplained and undermines everything else that happens on screen. This kind of unevenness makes Chi-Raq a tougher watch than it should be. It still manages to come out on the positive side of the ledger, but has some serious issues.
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