In recent years even Spike Lee’s biggest fans may have wondered if the creator of “Do the Right Thing” was circling the drain of irrelevancy.
Worry no more. Lee — with an assist from the University of Kansas’ Kevin Willmott and the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes — has come roaring back with “Chi-Raq,” a passionate indictment of black-on-black urban violence.
It’s a swing-for-the-bleachers effort that is by turns furious, raunchy, sad, silly and savage.
This mashup of rap concert, poetry reading (the bulk of the dialogue is in rhyming verse) and burlesque sometimes slips into preachiness or heavy-handed satire, but even the shortcomings become part of the film’s overall strength.
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“Chi-Raq” begins with titles informing us that in recent years there have been more gun deaths among the citizens of the Windy City than among our special forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The name, pronounced “shy-rack,” rhyming with Iraq, comes straight from the Chicago rap scene.)
Then Nick Cannon’s furious rap “Pray 4 My City” kicks in as a sort of profane overture: “Y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago / I don’t live in no *** Chicago / Boy, I live in Chi-Raq.”
The city’s South Side is torn between two gangs, led by the preening, cocksure Chi-Raq (Cannon) and the one-eyed, comically goofy Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).
When a little girl dies in a gang crossfire, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris of “Dear White People”), is so moved by the sorrow and anger of the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) that she organizes the women of both gangs into a movement. They will deny their men all sexual favors until the guns are put away and violence renounced. Pretty soon their message is taken up by women all over the world. Hookers stop hooking. Porn stars stop porning.
A man can’t get no relief.
This is, of course, a clever updating of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women went on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. And the film’s first hour is darn near flawless. The script by Lee and Willmott (“Confederate States of America,” “Jayhawkers”) zigs and zags from ribaldry to indignation while developing a palpable sense of loss for wasted lives. (It doesn’t hurt that Lee fills his film with real Chicagoans carrying poster-sized photos of their murdered children.)
A moving funeral oration by the white priest (John Cusack) of a mostly black congregation (a character based on real-life Chicago priest Michael Louis Pfleger) allows the screenwriters to punch dozens of hot-button issues: gun violence, the NRA, the mass incarceration of young African-American men, unemployment.
Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson drifts through as Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus in brightly colored three-piece suits who addresses the audience to riff on the action.
Lee and Willmott’s characters are psychologically thin, though a few performers — Angela Bassett, Hudson, Cusack — provide an illusion of depth.
What matters here is the big picture. The people who made “Chi-Raq” actually seem to believe that a movie can make a difference. For all its rude humor, this is at heart a dead serious enterprise bent on changing minds.
(To that end it makes perfect sense that after a theatrical run “Chi-Raq” will become available on Amazon’s streaming service, where it will reach far more viewers.)
Not everything in “Chi-Raq” works. The second hour suffers from some sophomoric political satire that finds Lysistrata seducing a racist National Guard general (David Patrick Kelly) who wears Nazi jackboots and confederate flag skivvies.
The bombastic and largely clueless mayor of Chicago (D.B. Sweeney) and his slick flunky (Harry Lennix) are at a loss to deal with these determined women. And the middle-aged members of a black fraternal group protest their new booty-free lifestyle.
One bit that does generate real laughs is provided by Dave Chappelle as an exasperated strip bar owner reduced to hiring young gang bangers to gyrate around the onstage pole.
Sometimes “Chi-Raq” soars. Sometimes it lurches. But there’s no escaping that this is a film with something — a big something — on its mind and a righteous desire to change the world.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R. Time: 1:58.
Robert W. Butler interviews Kevin Willmott, the University of Kansas film professor who co-wrote “Chi-Raq.”
Spike Lee, doing the right thing
“Chi-raq” director Spike Lee talked to the Los Angeles Times about violence, Black Lives Matter and gun control. An excerpt:
Q: What’s the biggest misconception you think people have of the movie?
A: There’s a faction that feel like I’m making light of the situation on Chicago’s South Side, that I’m making fun of it, but that’s entirely not the case. And also, why would (Chicago native) Jennifer Hudson, who had three members of her family murdered, be in a film that makes fun of that? Why would the organization Purpose Over Pain — an organization no mother wants to be a member of, an organization of mothers who’ve had their sons and daughters murdered by senseless violence on the South Side of Chicago —– why would they be a part of a film that makes a mockery of their children?
Q: How does the conversation about guns and gangs in Chicago interact, for you, with the Black Lives Matter movement?
A: It goes hand in hand. I love what Black Lives Matter is doing, and I was marching in New York City after Ferguson and for Eric Garner. I’m with that, but I would be less of a person if I’m out there on the streets talking about the cops and private citizens who killed our people and then remain mum about us killing ourselves. For me, that don’t work.
It don’t matter what complexion the hand or finger is that’s pulling the trigger that’s killing somebody. We’ve got to be vocal on both parts.
Q: What message do you want people to take away from “Chi-Raq?”
A: Usually I never answer that question, but this is going to be an exception for “Chi-Raq.” We’ve got to think about guns in this country. We’re not talking about taking people’s Second Amendment rights away, but more thorough background checks, titling guns like you title a car, voting for politicians who don’t get contributions from the National Rifle Association. We’ve got to do something.