Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is destined to make almost everybody angry — not for what it says about Chicago’s homicide statistics, especially among young African-Americans, but for how it says it.
Director and co-writer Lee took an existing script by Kevin Willmott (“C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America”), and together they relocated this brash update on the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” to modern-day Chicago. Its prologue is all business, indicating nothing of the raunchy sex comedy lurking in the bushes around the corner. As Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” fills the soundtrack with mourning, lyrics pop up on the screen: “Please pray for my city/ Too much hate in my city/ Too many heartaches in my city/ But I got faith in my city.”
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The “faith” part doesn’t come easily. “Chi-Raq” includes in its opening minutes screenful after screenful of stats unfavorably comparing Chicago’s murder rate to American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a city of “pain, misery and strife,” as our straight-to-the-camera narrator, Dolmedes, played by Samuel L. Jackson, tells us. And, he says, “we can’t take this much more.”
Our host relays the story as a mythic flashback concerning a “gorgeous Nubian sister,” Lysistrata, in this telling a stunner played by Teyonah Parris. After the stark overture, Lee begins his deliberate, risky, often entertaining disorientation of the audience. Frustrating and wildly uneven, “Chi-Raq” is also Lee’s most interesting project in nearly a decade, since the slick thriller “Inside Man” and the excellent Hurricane Katrina documentary for HBO, “When the Levees Broke,” both from 2006.
Dolmedes fills us in on the context. The Aristophanes comedy “Lysistrata,” about a sex strike waged by Athenian women designed to frustrate their lunkhead warriors into halting the Peloponnesian War, dates from 411 B.C. and was written in rhymed verse. “Chi-Raq” will do likewise, he says. The South Side women are fed up with the carnage caused by the war between rival gangs, the Trojans (Wesley Snipes is their one-eyed leader, Cyclops) and the Spartans (whose ranks include Cannon’s character, a rising rapper with a gangbanger’s resume, who goes by the name Chi-Raq). Lysistrata gets wind of a sex strike, a nonfictional example from recent history, led by Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. Why not try it here, in the bloody city by the lake?
Lysistrata persuades women, many of them grieving mothers with dead children, to forget their blood feuds and band together. No more action for anyone until the men put the guns down. The doltish, panicky mayor (D.B. Sweeney) blusters while Lysistrata and company take over the armory in protest.
Many more characters and a dozen different styles jostle for screen time in a crowded movie. Jennifer Hudson has little (too little) to do as the woman whose preteen daughter falls victim to the latest stray bullet in the gang war. John Cusack portrays a thinly veiled version of Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, who rails against America’s love affair with firearms and offers a reward for the killer of the latest murdered child. Angela Bassett’s Miss Helen, the conscience of the neighborhood, owns a bookstore and, in a standout scene, encounters a smiling, predatory insurance salesman at her front gate.
For every sharp, arresting sequence, such as the early, deadly shootout between gang members at a nightclub (peppered with a flurry of online and on-screen taunts), “Chi-Raq” accommodates a massive misjudgment. At one point Lysistrata seduces and then turns the tables on a venal, sex-starved Confederate-loving military officer. The humor — the officer sports Confederate flag underwear and mounts his Civil War cannon in a suggestive manner — is painfully clunky, and the setup makes zero sense, even for a multidirectional satire: a Confederate, in Chicago? Huh?
For many the tonal change-ups, the swings between the horrors of street violence and phallocentric sight gags, will throw them straight out of the picture. “Lysistrata” has never been an easy property to adapt, though everyone keeps trying. We’ve had everything from “Lysistrata” set in 19th-century Kansas (“The Second Greatest Sex,” 1955, a movie musical) to countless stage attempts the world over. The idea at the center of “Lysistrata” is so elemental and so strong, yet the marriage of serious points made through antic, comic methods is never smooth.
The stage-trained actors fare best; Jackson, Bassett and Parris find a performance pitch that makes sense and responds to the material’s warring impulses. Cusack’s scenes are compelling in a completely different style. But Lysistrata herself tends to get lost in her own story. Had the script begun on a broadly comic note and then grown progressively more sobering, rather than seesawing throughout, “Chi-Raq,” I suspect, might have established more buy-in with audiences. Many in that audience may approach Lee’s film in a defensive crouch. Touchy Chicagoans with various agendas have been wary of Lee’s movie for months, before, during and after last summer’s filming. They’re wary of any movie that treats these subjects as a source of any sort of satire, dark or light, purposeful or frivolous.
To its credit, “Chi-Raq” traffics in all those sorts of comedy. People forget just how wonderfully unpredictable Lee’s work can be — “Do the Right Thing” on the high end, “School Daze” in the middle and satires such as “Bamboozled” lower down. If “Chi-Raq” provokes any reflection about the uses of satire and the plight of a city, it was worth the effort — however mixed-up the results.