A Greek play transplanted to southside Chicago, the fiery Lysistrata organizes a sex strike that will last until warring gangs put down their weapons.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Starring Teyonah Paris, Nick Cannon, and Angela Bassett
Initial review by Jon Kissel
On top of the earnest factor, Lee is also pushing a unique lyricism on his audience. As an adaptation of an Aristophanes ('Stophanes for short) play, Lee keeps theatrical elements like the Greek chorus of the men's club and Dolmedes' expositing directly to the audience. I expect these choices to be divisive, but again, they worked on me. I talk about show-don't-tell a lot on this site, but THIS IS AN EMERGENCY, as the opening and closing text blares. For Lee, that kind of urgency takes precedence over subtlety and subtext, and if he wants to have someone as magnetic as Samuel L. Jackson tell me how the world is reacting to the sex strike, I can go along for the ride. On the dialogue, I went in wary, but fell under its spell, thanks to the passion in the delivery and the rhythm of the words themselves. I expected some hackiness to shine through on occasion, but my corn radar never pinged. I count the theatrical approach as an asset. Lee's experimenting, and I admire the effort, doubly if that effort's as successful as I believe it is.
The delivery system for Lee's message worked on me. The message itself is where things get more muddled. Directors like Judd Apatow use a lot of pop cultural references in their films, such that people in thirty years are going to have to be reminded of what Munich was about when they revisit Knocked Up. Lee does the same thing in Chi-Raq, but uses of-the-moment news stories instead of culture. That's perfectly fine, as names like Tamir Rice should not be forgotten after they've cycled out of the news, but Lee is anything but surgical. Police brutality is very much a side issue in this film, shifting focus from Lysistrata's central goals, and the Confederate flag is a side issue to a side issue. I feel like the bizarre interlude with the Lost Cause commandant of the local National Guard armory was only included so Lee could get Lysistrata swiftly ripping the Stars and Bars off the wall. The Chicago murder rate, mostly localized in a handful of districts, is enough for a film. Lee muddies the waters when he branches out.
When he is drilled into this one specific issue, Chi-Raq is at its best. I can't have been the only viewer whose eyebrows were raised at the sight of John Cusack, but he converted me with his long, enraged sermon. Framing the crime in South Side Chicago, among other places, as the end result of a racist system is something Lee's been making movies about for decades. That he goes on to add a masculine-feminine dynamic is fairly inspired, and right in my ideological wheelhouse. We talked about masculinity in Boyz N the Hood, where poor black men are constantly emasculated by the police and the economy, and then lash out at their equally oppressed peers for the smallest slight. The same thing is on display here. The women of the Spartans and Trojans can sit down with each other and drink wine, while their boyfriends plot to kill each other over text messages. Toxic masculinity and fragile egos, combined with easily accessible guns and plentiful guns-as-penises metaphors, leads to a bloodbath, and attacking it at its source is the only avenue left for the women who don't want to play this game anymore. Multiple characters acknowledge how pointless all this is, with all their energy directed against each other when it could be better pointed in a different, more productive direction, though Cannon's Demetrius demonstrates the prisoner's dilemma inherent when everyone's not paddling in the same direction. Lee allows several characters to be mouthpieces who describe this game as pointless and small, including real-life victims of gun violence and mothers who have lost children. Again, the urgency of the message works on me.
I bought the message and how it was delivered, though I wish Lee was a little more focused. However, there are definitely some fumbles. Isaiah Whitlock's a good actor, who deserves more respect than just as a deliverer of his sheee-it catchphrase. Some of the dialogue is used as ham-fisted exposition. No person should ever be allowed to say, "As a lawyer..." or the equivalent. In the biggest critique, the characters don't feel like they have lives outside of the film. Lysistrata's minions have no problems occupying the armory for weeks, like it was totally reasonable to abandon whatever their lives were before. I get that they have bigger goals, but hearing them be more conflicted would've humanized them. My last complaint is that the church hymn sang at Patti's funeral was a cinematic failure. It left me cold in a way those kinds of scenes never do, as they often work on me. I remember having to defend a good grade I gave to the Ladykillers, and I can't go less than a C+ on a movie that has such invigorating scenes inside a black church. In Chi-Raq, I think I wanted Irene to stand up and yell about the bow being put on her daughter's coffin, and maybe it was appropriate to have a more mournful song instead of this joyful one. The dichotomy of the song with Irene's utter misery just made me uncomfortable.
Lee swung for the fences, and the home-run hitters don't knock it out of the park every time. This is a gamble that worked far more often than it failed. I loved all the main actors, and several of the down-sheet ones, too. It leavens its desperate message with plenty of jokes and outlandish scenarios, has scenes of bracing choreography, and ultimately strikes me as a respected friend who grabs you by your collar and screams in your face to pay attention. I don't want every movie to be a civics lesson, or an earnest appeal to my conscience. The times when that kind of filmmaking works are extremely valuable, overburdened message be damned. B+