By Elias Savada.
I was ready to give up on Spike Lee after suffering through Red Hook Summer, his 2012 scattershot meditation on the director’s beloved Brooklyn. Lo and behold, the joint man is back in fine iambic pentameter form with the latest adaptation of the ancient Greek dramedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. I’ve got to admit, Lee refashions the already sharply witted source material, now nearly 2,500 years old, and, for the most part, makes a riveting, entertaining, bawdy, and controversial examination of the American gang and gun culture as played out on the streets of Southern Chicago. Chi-Raq should roq your world.
For the uninformed, the premise involves a group of (generally attractive) women withholding sexual favors from the community’s overly aggressive (and often, equally eye-catching) males, to foment peace instead of a war. Ostensibly a dark comedy, this version (among about a dozen previously filmed accounts) is bittersweet and acidic, burning images of the innocent caught in the crosshairs of the gang gunplay. This is not a tale of untold thousands caught up in some far off war, but a call-to-action concerning the innocent neighborhood children and others falling like flies to stray bullets. The limited size of the battlefield or the minimal on-screen body count by no means belittles the film’s caustic and colorful fervor. In life, the insanity of murder, whether one person or thousands, remains constant, declared in alarming headlines and the gruesome television news clips. “Eight killed in Chicago over the Thanksgiving weekend” is but one headline in an endless parade of madness. And, yes, the world’s problems, be they a proliferation of easy-access weaponry that is killing real people in California, Connecticut, and Charleston, or the poverty that is beating down too many people, are screamed out at us in Chi-Raq. Many of these are compressed in a meandering, preachy, non-verse sermon delivered by John Cusack, playing Father Corridan, an inner city activist based on Father Michael Pfleger, the spiritual leader of St. Sabina’s Church.
To tell its urgent tale, Chi-Raq has assembled one of the best ensemble casts of the year, all hitting their expected poetic marks, and several rapping hither and yon (thankfully with box titles for the audibly challenged). The eponymous lead is played by Teyonah Parris (2014’s Dear White People), whose boyfriend is rapper and the Spartan gang leader Demtrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon). The rival Trojans have their own violent agenda under the leadership of Cyclops (a gold-toothed, eye-patched Wesley Snipes). Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson (now in her Broadway debut in The Color Purple) is a mother grieving over the death of her 11-year-old daughter, killed in a drive-by shooting for which no one takes the blame. The emcee is played by an ebullient and flamboyantly dressed Samuel L. Jackson (a la his role in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, 1989) as Dolmedes, a Greek chorus and street poet who provides a cautionary commentary. Angela Bassett shines as a local peace activist whose daughter was taken down years earlier by gang gunfire gone awry. D.B. Sweeney plays a madcap caricature of the city’s mayor. There are many recognizable supporting players and cameos, including Harry Lennix (Blacklist, 2013- ) as the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety, and Anya Engle-Adams, La La Anthony, Felicia Pearson and local actress Ebony Joy, as some of the women who back Lysistrata’s plan.
Lee adeptly juggles satire, music, surrealism, and incendiary dialogue, from a script he penned with the fearless Kevin Wilmott, who a dozen years ago wrote and directed C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, an alternate universe comedy “documentary” that espoused the South’s victory during the Civil War. The bold storytelling unfolds within a bloody yet vibrantly heightened production design (courtesy of Alex DiGerlando), allowing Chi-Raq to capture the play’s beating, rhythmic heart, while also filming on location in the Windy City’s Englewood section, home to one of the poorest and violent neighborhoods in the area.
From time to time – particularly with the occasional maps, diagrams, and statistics hurled at the audience – the film resembles something out of the Michael Moore (do catch his latest rumination Where to Invade Next, out soon) school of political activism, showcasing the escalating problems that gun violence has created in a country that stubbornly refuses to deal with the issue.
Lee, who birthed such memorable films as She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988), is back at the top of his form with Chi-Raq. Let’s hope he stays there.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.