Chi-Raq Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett. Directed by Spike Lee. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Spike Lee has never had much use for subtlety, and Chi-Raq, his movie about gang violence in Chicago, handles the topic about as gracefully as a screaming op-ed piece. It’s possible to argue that an issue this urgent and polarizing deserves nothing less than Lee’s loudest, messiest, most obnoxious filmmaking techniques, and he certainly holds nothing back in what has become his most high-profile film in nearly a decade (thanks in part to Amazon, which will stream the movie at an unspecified date shortly following its theatrical release). But Chi-Raq, like so many Lee joints, is a jumble of ideas and approaches that clash and fall flat more often than they connect.
The movie is a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata, in which the title character leads her fellow Greek women in denying their men sex until the Athenians and Spartans agree to end their armed conflict. Lee’s Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) lives on Chicago’s notoriously violence-plagued South Side, and she’s sick of the killing between the two main rival gangs. After a young girl loses her life in the crossfire of a turf war, Lysistrata organizes a sex strike that grows to encompass prostitutes, strippers, porn stars and eventually women all around the world.
Although he’s drawn attention and controversy for his use of the Chi-Raq name and setting, Lee isn’t making a gritty, naturalistic drama about life amid Chicago’s gang wars. The two major gangs (named the Trojans and the Spartans) are fictional, and their flamboyant, color-coded fashion senses make them look more like something out of The Warriors than from the evening news. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott also come up with some truly atrocious rhyming dialogue to mimic the cadence of a classic play, although the rhyming comes and goes seemingly at random.
The entire movie is a scattered collection of techniques: highly stylized back-and-forth patter about sexual relations (plus rigidly composed shots to match); a local preacher played by John Cusack delivering a non-rhyming speech about economic and social policy; a dance number set to a sexy slow jam; crude, lowbrow comic relief from Dave Chappelle, among others; a dapper rhyming Greek chorus of sorts played by Samuel L. Jackson. Lee puts together some striking images, and Parris is fierce and dedicated as the no-nonsense Lysistrata. But like his protagonist, Lee starts with admirable intentions only to find himself in over his head.