There are many words and phrases to describe Chi-Raq, the new “joint” about Chicago gang violence from director Spike Lee.
Preachy. Ambitious. Polarizing. Didactic. Maddening. Uneven. Strident. Surreal. Self-indulgent. Topical. Satirical. As subtle as a hammer to the head.
But boring is not one of them.
Seething with a sense of purpose yet also stylishly cinematic and playful, Chi-Raq is Lee at the top of his game. Coming after a long list of films that were largely ignored (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Oldboy, Red Hook Summer and Miracle at St. Anna among them), Chi-Raq puts Lee back in the middle of the cultural conversation with a ferocity not seen since the days of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.
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And it’s landing at a time when Chicago violence has strong-armed its way back into the news cycle, with the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by a reputed gang member, and the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of policeman Jason Van Dyke.
Dealing with the difficult subject matter of out-of-control violence on the south side of Chicago and naming his film Chi-Raq — an amalgam of “Chicago” and “Iraq” — already has sparked anger in the Windy City, including from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But Lee widens the focus beyond gang violence in the black community to indict the wider society. No one is left unscathed.
Despite the message, Lee, who co-wrote the script with Kevin Willmott, isn’t interested in a straight-line, “Afterschool Special” narrative. The entire concept is based on Ancient Greek writer Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, so characters use modern language but often talk in verse, and one — narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) — speaks directly to the camera.
The result is a blend of iambic pentameter and hip-hop that is at once jarring and rewarding, the filmic equivalent of the paintings of Kehinde Wiley, the L.A. artist who meshes contemporary American urban and classical European imagery. (An exhibit of his work is on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through Jan. 10.)
At the heart of Chi-Raq are Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and her gang-banger/rapper boyfriend (Nick Cannon), who goes by the name Chi-Raq. After a gang shootout in the street leaves a child dead and a mother (Jennifer Hudson) grieving, another neighborhood mother (Angela Bassett) who has lost a child to violence convinces Lysistrata that there has to be a better way to live.
Lysistrata is inspired by the actions of Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, who, in 2003, organized a sex strike among women, among other protest tactics. They would not have relations with their husbands or boyfriends until the civil war in their country was over.
Such an action bears a similarity to the plot of Lysistrata, in which the women of ancient Greece abstain from sex to hasten the end of the Peloponnesian War.
Amazingly, Lysistrata not only gets the women of Chicago to join but women around the world, from Australia to Brazil. It’s enough to get the warring gang leaders Chi-Raq and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) to at least think about putting down their weapons. While the plot is the stuff of fantasy, the issues raised are grounded in realism.
Parris, good in Dear White People and as a secretary in Mad Men, is a revelation here, and Cannon, whom some may only know as Mariah Carey’s ex, totally inhabits the character of Chi-Raq.
Jackson looks like he’s having a blast as the viewer’s guide through this world. John Cusack might seem an odd choice as south-side activist priest Father Mike Corridan, though he’s based on real-life white priest Michael Pfleger.
But the real star is Lee, whose cinematic eye — from the galvanizing opening shootout at a rap concert to the choreographed “music video” interlude using the 1972 hit Oh Girl by Chicago R&B group the Chi-Lites — remains as vibrant as ever.
Not everything works. The entire sequence involving the Confederate-loving general (David Patrick Kelly) should have been lost on the cutting-room floor.
Still, love it or hate it, Chi-Raq can be summed up with one word that doesn’t apply to most movies: original.
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☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes
Rated: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, violence, drug use)
Running time: 127 min.