Chi-Raq: War and not getting a piece

Movie Review: Chi-Raq

Spike Lee fuses Chicago’s inner-city violence with ancient Greek comedy and ends up with a windy bag of bawdy jokes that feels stiff in all the wrong ways

Chi-Raq

Starring: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Basset, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson

Directed by: Spike Lee

Running time: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

If Spike Lee makes it, they will come. The filmmaker has an audience all his own and a production system he controls, which is why he can make movies like Chi-Raq – a story that would have been kicked out the door of any studio in a matter of seconds.

Imagine some unknown walks into your well-appointed office and says: “I want to make a movie based on an Aristophanes comedy from 411 BC, but set it in modern-day Chicago, and use it to make a point about gun violence in black culture…”

Even playing armchair studio chief, you sense the cash register won’t ring at the thought of such a prospect. So good on Spike Lee for challenging even his biggest fans with this thoughtful, intermittently amusing and creatively scripted take on Lysistrata.

An oldie but a goodie, Aristophanes’s play deals with the story of the Peloponnesian War. For years, it was essentially the Athenians against the Spartans fighting for dominance, but the way Aristophanes writes it, the women got so tired of burying their sons and husbands, they came up with a radical strategy: Withhold sex until the men agree to put down their weapons.

Lysistrata is considered the seminal comedy of the sexes because once the women refuse the booty call, the war between men shrivels in importance. Without a place to pop their cork of victory, the boys lose interest in wholesale slaughter. The shape of the villain changes from that of a broad-shouldered warrior to that of a fine-hipped female, forcing all combatants to re-evaluate their allegiances.

At the same time, the audience is given a chance to survey the situation from a distance. At first, we listen to war heroes exalt their victories and spread the glorious cause of war while women enable the bloodshed with their adoring eyes. But eventually, as the men grow more hostile to the women who deny their advances, we hear the rhetoric of war move from the battlefield to the bedroom, and at that point, the whole thrust of the exercise becomes clear: Men make war to aggrandize their own egos while women are left to clean up the bloody mess, and these ladies have had enough.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) used to be a boo-boo-kissing ego-booster to her boo, the gang-banging rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). Together, she and Chi-Raq ruled the streets of the South Side, instilling fear into the hearts of the enemy, lead by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

But after a child is caught in the crossfire and Lysistrata witnesses a young mother’s (Jennifer Hudson) grief, she has a change of heart and decides enough is enough. She’s putting a lock on her software until the boys drop the homicidal hardware.

For the next hour, tempers flare and euphemisms for all kinds of sex splatter across the soundtrack in rhyming verse. Delivered with the help of Samuel L. Jackson as our omniscient, on-stage narrator Dolmedes, Lee’s script adopts the same linguistic devices as Aristophanes ancient original.

It’s not always easy on the ears, but the fusion of urban slang and classical structure kind of works. Both have a performance element that plays to the larger, self-conscious mood of the whole piece.

And that’s what’s curious about Chi-Raq: How similar the world of ancient Greece and current day Chicago really are, because if you strip away the context and the calendar, what you’re watching is the peacock parade of male ego across the ages.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a warrior swinging his sword through ancient streets, or a gangster rolling through the ‘hood, we’re watching the same need for power, recognition and respect manifest through acts of violence.

Of course it’s tragic, but Aristophanes also tried to make it funny by pointing out how ridiculous all that posturing really is. Thanks to Jackson, who provides the comic context via walk-ons and direct addresses to the audience, Chi-Raq has the right wink.

It’s when it tries to hit the solid notes of drama that this elevated railcar of concept starts to shudder. John Cusack is always watchable, but he feels a little out of place as the minister. Jennifer Hudson can sing and act, but here, she’s left to emote without direction as a grieving mother. Dave Chappelle is probably one of the smartest, wittiest comedians in the world today, but his return to the screen feels entirely inconsequential because Chappelle could have been anybody.

Lee uses his actors like puppets in his own little play performed in a cut-out box. They feel more like ideas than people, symbols of race and racism, gender and politics, war and peace.

As a result, Chi-Raq feels far more rigid than any play based on the bawdiness of Aristophanes should: It’s more interested in presenting the lecture about blacks taking black lives through gun violence than it is in stripping the human condition down to a single, desperately bare bone that we can all laugh at.

It’s still an important piece from an important filmmaker, but Chi-Raq is sure to get more love from its future life in a film textbook than it will before the masses, or even Spike Lee’s loyal fans.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, April 1, 2016

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Review: Chi-Raq

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Spike Lee fuses Chicago's inner-city violence with ancient Greek comedy and ends up with a windy bag of bawdy jokes that feels stiff in all the wrong ways. On the upside, the creative use of language and Samuel L. Jackson's recurring presence will keep you engaged when the rest of you wants to bolt. -- Katherine Monk

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